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The Power of Physical Presence

the power of physical presence

The Power of Physical Presence

As a new leader, are your results sometimes worse than you expect? Do people sometimes reject your authority? Are direct reports reluctant to follow through with assignments? Is motivating some employees an issue?

In a coaching study of large organizations by CoachSource, over half the organizations surveyed selected executive presence as a primary coaching need for leaders. It came in second behind leadership development as a reason organizations hire coaches for their managers and directors.

Frequently I have seen coaching clients—both new and experienced leaders—decide to focus their efforts on generating a more powerful or assertive physical presence. In other situations, individuals discuss showing too much power and question their ability to gain trust and to interact effectively.


People decide in an instant if you are competent, if you are likable, if you are powerful or if you lack power. This means it is critical to consider what messages you convey with your body. 

  • Do you exude confidence? Do you come on too strong?
  • Are you able to show respect? Do you attract the respect of others?
  • Are you able to connect with your audiences? Do you hold their attention?
  • Do people who observe you believe you are in control? Do you sometimes appear powerless?

Typically, before an important meeting, we think about what to say. However, in addition to thinking about words, effective leaders also think about what their bodies are telling people.

One research study indicated that what you say can account for as little as 7% of what you communicate to other people. Depending on the context, body, facial expression and tone of voice can account for the rest. If your body and language are not aligned, people believe your body instead of your words, which jeopardizes their trust in you.

We grow up recognizing physical cues and what they mean. We learn how to show respect and how to take charge. We learn that one body language is open to connection and another one is more decisive. We understand body language, but we may not know we know it. More seriously, we may recognize it in others and not in ourselves.

Do you think seriously about what your body is saying and then use your body and voice with intention?

Leaders find that different physical dispositions generate different results. The body one uses to generate connections is different than the body needed to demonstrate flexibility or determination. In this article, I will focus on physical presence that increases power and relationships

The body of power establishes authority and has the potential to increase influence. When you speak this language, others are likely to defer to you.  Effective leaders use this physical presence to assert their authority or when no one else is taking charge.

When using the body of power, you stand up straight and speak with authority. Your feet are flat on the floor often planted under your shoulders. Your chin is parallel to the ground. Your body expands and your energy fills the room. Your voice is low, you move very little, and you speak in complete sentences.

When speaking, you maintain eye contact longer than usual. When you walk, you assume others will move out of your way. When people address you, eye contact and reactions to their comments are limited.  The person in the body of power is more likely to interrupt or to show limited attention when someone else is speaking.

The body of power may change depending on one’s purpose. Powerful leaders may demonstrate what I refer to as the bodies of Stability or Resolution.

  • The body of Stability is protective and reliable. You stand erect with shoulders back—maybe looking somewhat regal. This body shows that you are strong and in control of any situation. Energy goes out and around you. Eyes are aware and possibly looking into the distance. Others feel safe when a leader assumes this position.
  • In a body of Resolution, you are intent on solving a problem or reaching a conclusion. Hands, eyes and physical energy are directed forward. Your eyes are narrowed and focused on a mission. Your voice is forceful and determined.

When displaying the body languages of power, others see you in control. You are likely to accomplish your goals and you are more likely to get what you want. Others may feel safe and protected. You can pull people together to solve problems. However, when used inappropriately, you can appear tyrannical or ruthless, uncaring or unconcerned about people around you. You may shut off relationships and close opportunities for collaboration and interaction.

This fact requires leaders to understand and use the second type of leadership presence, the body of relationship, which makes them more accessible and likable. This physical presence makes others comfortable and lifts their spirits.

When using the body language of relationship, you take up less physical space than in the body of power. You may lean forward, look down or tilt your head slightly. You direct energy inward or toward another individual. Your voice is soft and you are likely to hold eye contact for longer intervals when another person is speaking than when you are speaking. When you speak, you may look briefly into the other person’s eyes and then look away for short periods of time. You may speak in phrases or short sentences and your voice may rise at the end of sentences. You smile more frequently than in a body of power.

The body of relationship also has variations, depending on your intention. I refer to these variations as the bodies of Connection, Flexibility and Nurturing.

  • In the body of Connection, your eyes are soft as you look directly into the eyes of another person. You may wear a faint smile. Your hands stay at your sides open and inviting, or you reach out to touch the person with whom you are speaking.
  • In a body of Flexibility, you may show a sense of wonder and openness to possibilities. Moving your hands above your shoulders, you smile as you clearly show delight and anticipation.  You are open to many options as you encourage others to join you in looking for solutions. Your energy invites others to be creative or build a team. This physical presence is particularly effective when facilitating a group or inviting creative ideas.
  • In a nurturing body, you lean forward and are likely to touch and reach out to the other person both physically and emotionally. You spend more time listening than speaking. You may not smile as you listen to a person’s problems or their plans for the future. In this body, you may show your own positive feelings or reveal your own concerns or vulnerabilities.

When you display a body of relationship, you easily interact with others, who are often willing and even eager to confide in you and to work with you. Collaboration and teamwork are much easier when leaders assume this physical disposition. However, it is also possible to lose power or credibility when taking on the physical characteristics of relationship too frequently or under the wrong circumstances. Leaders can appear weak, flighty or even flirtatious (if you overdo a body of Connection).

Each person is more comfortable with one or two of the previous examples of leadership presence. Women, in particular, tend to be socialized to use body dispositions of connection. They are often more comfortable encouraging interaction; they may not be as comfortable showing a powerful presence. In addition to the risk of closing themselves off to relationships if they appear too powerful, women may experience resistance or resentment when they use body language that represents power. 

When something unexpected happens, it is crucial to know how to use your body to your best advantage…not to manipulate, but to accomplish your goals and the goals of those you lead or serve. As leaders, you play many roles, and you must determine how to use all your resources - mind, body, emotion and language - in each role.   

I would like to say there is a formula that will help you decide the appropriate body disposition for a given situation. Unfortunately, there is not. Different people react to different body images, and different situations call for leaders to play different parts. You must decide when and where to play certain roles as you meet your responsibilities, honor your own needs and wants and, at the same time, recognize that you may get it wrong.

Great leaders  act with power and intention. The challenge is to consider body language, practice using body dispositions that may not be comfortable and decide on the times to use each of them. 

I invite you to consider how you use your power, your body, your voice and your language, and I encourage you to use each of them with intention. 

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This topic is covered in greater detail in my book, Connect: Affective Leadership℠ for Effective Results.


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Comments (1)

  1. Marinda

    Interesting, love the post

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