What Does Your Face Say about Your Leadership?


“A picture is worth a thousand words.” We’ve all heard that.

But what about the face you present to your colleagues or a potential group of investors? It matters, too.

Leadership is not just how we communicate ourselves verbally, but visually. As a leader, your facial expressions can set, or erode, a tone of trust.

Even the NBA agrees that faces matter when it comes to leadership.

A recent New York Times article revealed the Milwaukee Bucks hired a facial coding expert in preparation for the 2014 draft to “determine if [prospective players] have the right emotional attributes” to make a winning team. Bucks coaches and managers spent time analyzing the skill and technique of prospective players; and yet, the toughest draft decisions were made through results of facial coding analysis.

The Times compared top prospects, Dante Exum and Jabari Parker. After video analysis of facial expressions, the Bucks selected Parker based on his potential for “emotional resiliency, stability, and immediate, assured presence.”

Lo and behold, before Parker’s 2014 season was cut short by a knee injury in mid-December, he significantly outperformed Exum. Parker had been averaging 12.3 points per game; Exum, only 4.9.

But the news that non-verbal cues matter isn’t anything new.

Facial expressions – in fact, all visual aspects of your presentation as we’ve blogged about before – are a critical piece of building credibility.

In fact, this HBR article states that warmth – best communicated through facial expression – is the first step to building trust. The article concludes, “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”

The next time you lead a meeting or make a pitch, try these tips to remember your facial expressions:

  • Lighten up your face is the simplest way to add warmth. And for many of us, it’s not the easiest shift to make. But it’s worth it. Lightening up your face projects confidence and warmth, and it helps you exude competence. It will becomes contagious.
  • Start your presentation with a SHARP by using an anecdote that makes you lighten up or laugh.
  • Connect with your eyes. Eye communication is essential, but it’s much harder to do when you’re speaking to a group. Hone in on each listener for a good 5 seconds. Your audience will feel that warmth and connection.
  • Add Affect. Show how you feel! Forget about your mouth for a minute and consider your eyebrows. Just raising your eyebrows can show emotion, show empathy and show that you’re listening. Do you agree, or do you disagree? Save that poker face for poker night – and let your face show how you feel.

How important do you think “saving face” is?

Communicating Trust – and the NSA

The NSA blew it, and Ed Snowden changed minds. What a difference communication makes! We were lucky to take part in TED 2014 last week. Of all the ideas shared, the most conversation-spurring topic was privacy: Do we want it? Do we have it? Is it eroding? Are we okay … Continue reading

Are You A Leader We Can Bank On?

“Focus on the jockey as much as the horse. Or, if racing eludes you, bet on the head coach…would you feel confident investing your hard-earned money on a legal bet this weekend on a team in the NFL without researching or knowing the history of the coach of that team?” – … Continue reading

Behavior Reigns – Lessons from the Debate Front

“We don’t ‘know’ our presidents. We imagine them. We watch them intermittently and from afar, inferring from only a relatively few gestures and reactions what kind of people they are and whether they should be in charge. Much depends on our intuition and their ability at a handful of opportune … Continue reading

Plastic vs. Authentic – Insights from the Republican Debates

Lots of Republican debates this year – more than ever. Many lessons learned in considering the behavior of communications, and believability, and leadership. Why doesn’t Romney catch on? And why has Cain so quickly climbed the popularity ladder? These are a couple of key questions that provide important insight as … Continue reading

Rebuild trust

“Do you trust most people?” This was the simple question asked in a survey done in 1960 and again in 1993. In 1960, 58% of respondents said yes. In 1993… just 37%. With recent leaders like BP CEO Tony Hayward bumbling through press conferences with “I want MY life back,” Dr. … Continue reading

Trust and Walter Cronkite

Why was Walter Cronkite the epitome of trust? Trust is an essential quality to have in any communicating experience, particularly newscasting. And every article, blog or TV clip mentions how Walter Cronkite was so trusted. What can we learn? I think there are three primary elements (of many) that made … Continue reading