Leadership characteristics list

When we first met—at a wedding anniversary celebration for mutual friends I was impressed and intrigued by D’Army Bailey. He radiated vigor...

When we first met—at a wedding anniversary celebration for mutual friends I was impressed and intrigued by D’Army Bailey. He radiated vigor and charisma. A few weeks later we got together for coffee and I learned much more about him. A Memphis-based lawyer and former judge, Bailey started out as an activist in the civil rights movement. He’s had a remarkable career litigating and adjudicating landmark cases, writing two books, and ultimately founding the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

But as we chatted and sipped on a second round of lattes, I couldn’t help but marvel at his appearance. Fit, toned, and impeccably dressed, he looked impossibly young. I was perplexed. “How is it that you, a man who marched with Martin Luther King, looks not a day over forty-nine?” I asked him.

“I’ve had three plastic surgeries,” he confessed nonchalantly. “I’ve had a forehead lift, a facelift, and had the bags removed from under my eyes.”

My mouth fell open and I spilled some coffee.

Seeing my astonishment, he burst out laughing. “Why shouldn’t I look my best?” he exclaimed, not in the least defensive. “I’m not ready to throw in the towel. I don’t want to retire.”

He then went on to explain that he’d long understood the connection between looking good and looking capable. “Facelifts and good dental work convey a more youthful appearance, but they also signal confidence and credibility. To my clients I’m more trustworthy. To a jury I’m more believable. Now, don’t get me wrong, my appearance isn’t what wins me a case, but when I look in control I feel in control—and that’s how others perceive me.”

Keisha Smith, managing director and co-head of talent management at Morgan Stanley when I interviewed her, now at News Corporation, told me that it was quite by accident that she came by her signature look. After a dye job went wrong, she had a barber shave off her hair—and liked the result. In the years since, as she has moved up the corporate ladder into roles of ever greater visibility and responsibility, she has perfected her stand-out look.

Tall, with wide-set eyes and a dazzling smile, she’s an executive you’d notice anyway; but as a bald Afro-Caribbean woman who holds a senior position at a Fortune 500 firm, she’s a leader you’ll never forget. It’s not the shaved head so much as the statement it makes: that she’s utterly at ease in her skin.

Smith is conscious that her appearance can “widen the gap” between herself and those she meets for the first time. In her words, “I’m aware that my aesthetic is unusual, and can be intimidating, which is why I take pains to close that gap by seeking out personal connections and establishing common ground with my colleagues.” However, she explains, it’s a style she enjoys, one that she intends to keep even if it does mean feeling self-conscious at every meeting with new clients. “I do what I need to do to make it work in my work environment, because having a style that I’m comfortable in breeds the inner confidence which helps me be successful.” She adds, “I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”

D’Army Bailey and Keisha Smith underscore the complexities of the appearance challenge today. A seventy-year-old male jurist can talk openly about how plastic surgery has enhanced his ability to stay in the game, and a forty-year-old female executive can choose to be bald and have it contribute to her gravitas. But do these voices signal new freedoms or new constraints? We’ve learned to value authenticity—and this is good—but at the same time standards have risen and we’re judged on many more fronts—wrinkles and waistlines as well as a well-cut skirt or suit.

As we wrestle with the thorny—and annoying—issue of looks, three things are uppermost in our minds: What marks us for success? What exactly are bosses and colleagues looking for these days? And how much does this superficial stuff matter anyhow?

At first glance, CTI data seems to show that appearance isn’t that important. Sixty-seven percent of the senior executives we surveyed told us that gravitas was the core characteristic of executive presence; 28 percent said that communication skills comprised the core; and a mere 5 percent said appearance was at the heart of the matter. However, from our qualitative data we found that appearance was typically the filter through which gravitas and communication skills were evaluated. That explains why high-performing junior employees oftentimes get knocked out of contention for key roles and promotions: they simply don’t look the part. In other words, get this appearance thing wrong and you’re struck off the list. No one even bothers to assess your communication skills or your thought leadership communication capabilities if your appearance telegraphs you’re clueless.

Over the long haul, the way you look may not be nearly as important as what you say or how you act, but it’s incredibly important in the short run. Cracking the appearance code opens doors and puts you in play.

So what are senior leaders looking for? What are their top picks?

leadership characteristics list

Leadership characteristics list: Being polished and groomed

I find this top pick extremely comforting because it confers on individuals a great deal of agency and control. More than a third of the senior executives in our survey (men and women) considered “polish and grooming” vital to men’s and women’s EP, whereas less than a fifth said that physical attractiveness matters. It turns out that the intrinsic stuff (body type, height) is not what matters most; rather, it’s what you do with what you’ve got. As one leader put it in an interview, “You’ve got to look as though you tried, that you pulled yourself together.” When I present this data most professionals are relieved to learn that cracking the appearance code is something that can be learned and you’re not stuck with what you were born with.

Research conducted by Nancy Etcoff at Harvard Medical School bears this out. She showed 268 subjects images of women’s faces, either flashing the images for 250 milliseconds or allowing subjects ample time to study the images. As can be seen in the figure below, the images featured three women, each of them made up in four different ways. The only difference between the four versions of each woman’s face was the amount of cosmetics applied—the range was from no makeup to dramatic makeup.

Subjects were asked to assess each woman’s face in terms of how attractive, competent, trustworthy, and likable they judged the woman to be.

What did Etcoff and her team find out? Not surprisingly, judgments about a woman’s attractiveness were heavily conditioned by how much makeup she was wearing—the more, the better—and number 4 was the top choice. Much more startling, judgments about her competence, likability, and trustworthiness were also deeply affected by cosmetic choices. As though competence is really a function of how much lipstick you wear! Again, the rule of thumb seemed to be the more makeup the better. With one exception, the top choice for trustworthiness was number 3, not 4. This implies that although dramatic makeup gets high marks it’s hard to fully trust a woman who looks glamorous.

One startling thing about this study is how quickly these judgments were made (250 milliseconds). And these flash judgments tended to stick. Even after viewers were given the chance of unlimited inspection and reviewed their decision, they continued to accord highest marks (in terms of competence, likability, and trustworthiness, as well as attractiveness) to the most adorned faces.

Trying hard really does help. A judicious use of cosmetics, neatly manicured nails, well-fitting jeans (Silicon Valley), a perfectly cut jacket (Wall Street), and carefully coiffed hair all make a difference. When you make an effort to look polished, you signal to others that you see them as worth your time and investment, and you’re even prepared to tolerate mild discomfort (think of those closely fitting shirt collars that rub against your neck or those stylish four-inch heels that cramp your toes). Who wouldn’t respond to such efforts! It’s a statement of respect, after all—respect for colleagues and clients, respect for yourself.

No one better understands this than my friend and coauthor Cornel West, the beloved scholar, philosopher, and activist who’s much admired for his courage in speaking truth to power. To hear West deliver one of his passionate, powerful speeches is to experience something that rocks you to your core. And appearance is an integral part of it.54 Sure, there’s his body language. He assumes a forward-pitched crouch, which frees up his arms to wave and gesticulate. There’s his delivery, a song that crescendos into a battery of inconvenient truths before resuming its lulling cadence. And then there’s West’s “uniform,” the black three-piece suit, black tie, immaculate white shirt (French cuffs flaring, cuff links glinting), black scarf, and silver-toned watch fob. I have never seen him attired in anything else. He wears this uniform whether he’s sitting next to Newt Gingrich on a television stage, serving breakfast to the urban poor, or sitting in my backyard on a sultry August afternoon. While it doesn’t always get him a taxi at night in New York City, West’s look does command the attention of heads of state and business titans as well the loyalty and affection of millions of regular folk.

But there’s more to his clothing than distinctiveness. West perceives his attire as his suit of armor, the thing that enables him to face the “bullets and arrows” endemic to his work. “It makes me feel good, to put on my uniform,” he says, “because you’ve got to be ever ready for engagement and combat.” If he’s rather particular about the details of his uniform—the break of his cuff, the crease in his pants—it’s because he cannot permit a breach in his self-confidence. “If I walk around without my crease, it’s like walking around with my shoes not shined,” he says. “I don’t feel right.”

West wears this uniform because it telegraphs, to himself and others, the seriousness of his mission and the respect he bears for those who launched him on his journey. His suits are akin to Martin Luther King’s “cemetery clothes,” which, West explains, MLK wore to remind himself that he was going to live and die for something bigger than he was. “I may be smiling, laughing, fighting, writing, and speaking—with hope, and kindness, and humor,” says West, who these days is a professor of religious philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, “but I’m ‘coffin-ready’ because the tradition that produced me sets the highest standards that I could possibly aspire to.”

Now, I’m not urging you to wear a three-piece suit or any other uniform. Nor do I wish to imply that polish can only be achieved by wearing black or nailing that crease in your pants. I am suggesting, however, that you take pains to signal, in your appearance, a seriousness of purpose by attending to the details. Casual clothes may be the right choice for your organizational culture, but in their fit and brand and style, they should telegraph that you take your work and those whom you engage in it very seriously. Poor grooming—dandruff on your collar, scuffed shoes, broken nails, runs in your tights, soup on your tie—compromises the ability of other people to see you as someone who’s going places because it says that either you don’t notice sloppiness or you don’t care enough to attend to it. In interview after interview, senior leaders told me that failure to come through on the grooming front signals either poor judgment or lack of discipline. Neither is good.

“If you were making a pitch for a new piece of business, you wouldn’t go into that client meeting with hand-scribbled notes,” says Mark Stephanz, vice chairman of Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “No: You’d go to no end of trouble to be sure that you had a PowerPoint (or printed deck) at the ready which was polished, powerful, and error-free. And the same rules must apply to your presentation of self.”

Good grooming is not just about making a polished first impression: It’s about signaling to your competitors, and yourself, that you’re in total control. Former judge D’Army Bailey told me he had his aha! moment about grooming back in high school, when he saw Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman star in The Hustler. What impressed him was how Minnesota Fats, the pool shark played by Gleason, maintained his cool throughout a night of fearsome competition by going into the men’s room during breaks to wash his face, comb his hair, and straighten his tie. “He wants his opponent to think he’s fresh, and unfazed by the intensity of the challenge,” Bailey observes. “I learned from this that in every encounter with an opponent, it’s a psychological game you’re playing, and no matter how tense you are, you should try not to show it. Don’t let them see you sweat; don’t allow yourself to look worn or unkempt.” So Bailey gets regular facials and manicures, in addition to frequent haircuts. “If I am meeting with someone consequential and look down and see I’m two weeks out from a manicure, I’m going to start worrying about what is showing on my nails, and that’s going to distract me,” he says. “Tidy nails, a fresh haircut, and a fresh shirt always give me a confidence boost.”

Achieving polish comes down to this golden rule: Minimize distractions from your skill sets and performance. Have professionals tend to your nails and hair regularly. Invest in well-cut attire that complements your body type. Accessorize, but don’t billboard your bling. And unless you’re in an industry that prizes physical beauty, don’t flaunt your body. For men as well as women, sexuality scrambles the mind. Don’t wear shirts that emphasize your build or blouses that emphasize your bust; avoid tight or skimpy trousers or skirts. Clothing that advertises your body steals attention from, say, your laser-sharp analytic skills or your visionary design expertise or your compelling oratory. All of which underscores one basic principle: Your appearance should focus your audience on your professional competencies, not distract from them.

Minimizing sexual distraction is especially important if you’re female. A senior Wall Street executive who’s mentored a number of high-flying women told me that oftentimes he’s needed to spell out how and why dressing in a sexually suggestive way undermines a woman’s EP. In his words: “When a female executive walks into a room with three buttons open, a black lacy bra showing under her blouse, and a skirt hiked high, these things are going to distract the men sitting around a conference table . . . and they will take you much less seriously, however big a producer you are.” As he explained it to me, “It’s not that I want my protégées to look less feminine, just less provocative.” He then went on to speculate, “It’s as though at a deep level, some women believe that the power they ultimately wield is their sexuality. But overt sexuality has no place in the executive suite.”

Women, it seems, walk a fine line between turning heads and dropping jaws. So another rule of thumb: You should look “appropriate for your environment, and authentic to you,” as Kerrie Peraino, head of international HR for American Express, puts it. A tongue stud may be authentic to you, she explains, but it’s probably not appropriate to your environment unless you work in a tattoo parlor. Similarly, Dolce & Gabbana suits may be appropriate to your environment, but if glamorous designer wear doesn’t speak to who you are, don’t don the label. “Wearing clothes that feel inauthentic detracts from your internal confidence,” says Peraino. “A look that isn’t you—that has everyone scratching their heads—can actually sap your executive presence.”

That’s why the same dress on two different women can telegraph two completely different messages: It’s not the clothing per se but who you are that determines whether it’s appropriate. Peraino tells of a very senior leader at American Express, a woman who wowed everybody with her above-the-knee red dress when she took the podium at a recent women’s leadership traits event. “It totally worked,” says Peraino, “because she’d earned it. She was entitled to the red dress. She was hot not because she was trying to be sexy, but because she really is powerful.” Peraino thought for a moment and then added with a smile, “And that red dress had a conservative neckline. A little leg is one thing; cleavage is something else!” 

Leadership characteristics list: Physically attractive, fit, slim 

There’s a plethora of research proving the point that intrinsically attractive people get a speed pass over life’s bumpier transitions: They get hired more often, earn more, and even fare better in court than unattractive people.55 But thankfully your executive presence doesn’t depend on looking like a movie star. As I stressed earlier, grooming and polish count way more than conventional good looks (classic features, a well-proportioned body, abundant hair). But even with regard to physical attractiveness, what you do with your God-given gifts counts more than your intrinsic beauty in establishing your credibility as an up-and-comer.

The most important thing you can do, our qualitative data shows, is to signal fitness and wellness. It’s not how much you weigh, but how resilient you seem that enhances or detracts from your executive presence because leadership development programs are demanding. We tend not to entrust our toughest jobs to people who look like they might keel over from a heart attack. “Being physically fit gives people the confidence that you will take care of what you are asked to do, because you are taking care of yourself,” notes GE executive Deb Elam.

This helps explain why Chris Christie, New Jersey’s popular and portly governor, took the drastic step of undergoing lap band surgery in early 2013. Irrespective of his political ambition, he told reporters, he had to address his weight; it was a health issue, not an image issue. And yet health is the image issue when we’re talking about the nation’s highest office. Estimated at over three hundred pounds, Christie recognized that his weight might distract voters from his more important attributes and accomplishments.56 To make a successful presidential run, he cannot be obese. Obama, who is two inches taller than Christie, weighs 180 pounds.57 He’s far more typical of chief executives these days.58

Telegraphing fitness is all the more important if you’re heavyset and female, because women, our research affirms, suffer more from fat stereotypes than men. Both men and women with larger waistlines and higher body-mass-index readings tend to be perceived as less effective in terms of both performance and interpersonal relationships,59 and “lacking in confidence, self-discipline, and emotional stability.” 60 But weight is held against women more than it’s held against men: 21 percent of the senior executives we surveyed believe that being overweight detracts from a woman’s executive presence, while only 17 percent believe it detracts from a man’s EP. “There’s definitely more latitude for overweight men,” says one manager I interviewed who’s struggled with her own weight. “Generously proportioned women are just seen as unprofessional. It’s a third-rail kind of thing, so it doesn’t ever get mentioned in performance evaluations. But do people with excess weight advance at the same rate as those without? I suspect the answer is no. There is bias.” In our focus groups, both male and female executives echoed this observation. “Women who are overweight are seen as out of control and lazy,” one banker told us.

Unless you’re obese, the takeaway here is not to embark on a body makeover campaign. Rather, it’s to pay more attention to how well (as in healthy) you look, and how well you look after yourself. Whether you’re a size 16 or a 6, get enough exercise to ensure your muscles are toned and your lung power will see you up stairs without wheezing. Put extra effort into your grooming and polish; make sure your clothing fits your actual size, not the size you’re hoping to be. Looking well put together demonstrates respect for yourself and your organization. In the end, that’s what impresses.

Leadership characteristics list: Simple, Stylish clothes that position you for your next job

The platinum pixie, the gauntlet of silver bangles, the Prada dress or Balenciaga leather leggings—this is Joanna Coles, editor in chief of Cosmopolitan. She has an amazing signature look and personal brand, one that’s totally working for her in her highly visible role at the helm of the world’s most notorious magazine. She’s gotten roles playing herself on The Job and mentoring fashion designers on Running in Heels and Project Runway All Stars; she’s gotten in front of the camera on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to share her insights on how to interview for a job, and been snapped simply for chatting up Miley Cyrus (and outdressing her) at the Rachel Zoe runway show.

But this wasn’t always Coles. It’s been a longish journey, figuring out her look. As a young journalist, and the author of an interview column, her role demanded she be all but invisible. “It really wasn’t about me, but rather about the person I was interviewing,” she explains. “I would wear black or navy pants and a black or navy jacket; I would try and look as reassuring as possible and ease into the background.”

When she left her reporter job for an editing role, Coles experimented with her hair, dyeing it red and wearing it long—a trademark look, to be sure, but not one that telegraphed the seriousness of purpose she felt or the ambition that drove her. Only when she became editor of Marie Claire and had to make many public appearances did Coles effectively leverage her fashion smarts to magnify her executive presence. “In my twenties and thirties I worried that if I looked as if I spent time on my appearance I would appear vain and unserious,” she says. “But fashion has changed, there are more options for women, and I now realize had I spent more time on it, it might have given me more authority.”

We’re all on this journey. We’re either searching for our signature look, refining it, or reinventing it, because visibility is hard to maintain in our ever more competitive world economy. To be sure, the older you get and the higher you go, the more latitude you’ll have—Steve Jobs, as we all remember him, wore nothing but black turtlenecks and blue jeans. But those whom we recognize today for their signature look have nonetheless spent years working on it and earning it.

The journey begins by dressing for the job you want, not the job you have.

Kalinda, the real-estate analyst, remembers her “uniform” when she was working as a financial analyst for a cable sports channel. She had adopted the casual attire typical of staffers who weren’t in front of the cameras: jeans, T-shirts, and sweaters. On the advice of a mentor, she traded in her aggressively casual attire for tailored slacks and blazers. “I looked great, and I felt more confident,” she admits. Her superiors agreed. A few months after her makeover, Kalinda was put in charge of a major launch and given oversight of a new hire. “I’d been asking for this sort of thing, and my performance had always been strong,” she says. “But only when I started dressing for the part I wanted, instead of the part I had, did others perceive me as ready for that step up.”

Complement a sophisticated look with a signature style piece or accent. For men this might be a pair of colorful socks, a playful tie, vintage cuff links, distinctive shoes, or a bold watch. Women have arguably more options. Margaret Thatcher so famously wielded her Launer handbag that handbagging became the term used for Thatcher-style strong-arming of political opponents. Madeleine Albright adorns every suit with a quirky brooch. Cornel West leavens his ministerial look with a carefully maintained Afro. The more rigorous the dress code, or the more wholeheartedly you embrace it, the more it behooves you to personalize it in some standout way. The most successful signature looks convey that you know what’s expected of you and willingly embrace it—yet have the self-possession to channel your individuality through it.

Remember that your signature look encompasses not just you but also the physical space you occupy. Your office, like your body, is a vehicle for your brand. Just look at top executives’ offices and you’ll see how they affirm their image and trumpet their brand in their choice of furnishings and objects. For example, black-and-white fashion photographs cover every square inch of wall (and windowsill) in Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s office, but the understated color scheme (white, glints of gold and silver, a glass desktop) ensures that the overall effect is, like Wintour herself, sleek, sophisticated, and stunning. In contrast, Nike CEO Mark Parker conducts business in a space that’s so crammed with bad-boy posters, toys, prototypes, pop art, and kitschy memorabilia it’s a wonder he can work in it. I certainly couldn’t. But that’s not the point: Parker portrays himself as an extension of the Nike brand, rather than a contradiction. In very real ways, CEOs are the public face of their companies, and they are well-advised to align their brands with that of the business they represent.

Leadership characteristics list: Being Tall

Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, will go down in history for two things: the infamous tank photo, in which the would-be commander in chief looks like he’s been vanquished by a headset, and his height, which was something less than the five feet, eight inches he claimed on his driver’s license.

George H. W. Bush, who was six feet one, beat him handily, despite his own image issues (“Our Wimp Can Beat Your Shrimp,” declared one Republican bumper sticker), because shortness in a male leader was and is so easily conflated with major shortcomings. “Shortness creates a presumption of weakness,” writes Ben Shapiro, author of Project President: Bad Hair and Botox on the Road to the White House, noting that Dukakis was seen as seriously weak on defense and weak on crime.

If women’s leadership qualities potential is unreasonably correlated to weight, men’s is unfairly correlated to height. Sixteen percent of our respondents said height contributed to men’s EP; only 6 percent said it contributed to women’s. This bias most visibly plays out in presidential contests: Since Dukakis ran for the office, every man to sit behind the Oval Office desk has been taller than six feet. Over the history of presidential contests, taller candidates have beat out shorter ones 17 to 8.

What to do if you’re among the height-challenged? In this regard women have one killer app to help them compensate: high heels. And they use them. Lori Massad, head of human capital at AllianceBernstein, says she’s been taken aside and chided for her four-inch-heel designer footwear, which one of her male colleagues had suggested was inappropriate. “It’s a good thing I don’t dress for you,” she countered, explaining to me that the shoes made her feel “powerful and tall” and she wasn’t about to give them up.

For men, as the Dukakis campaign discovered, there’s not much to be done that doesn’t risk exacerbating the image problem. (At one point, his handlers had Dukakis stand on a mound of earth behind a podium, but that only made the height disparity with Bush more apparent when he stepped off the mound.) The best way to make height a nonissue is to take a page out of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s playbook. Bloomberg’s amour Diana Taylor, the former New York State superintendent of banks, is not only a good four inches taller but also inclined to appear by his side in showstopper heels. He “doesn’t care” about their height difference, as he enjoys her looking good, Taylor told the Huffington Post. A man secure enough to be photographed at the shoulder height of his girlfriend is a man no one will see as weak.

Leadership characteristics list: Being youthful and vigorous

Looking youthful, our survey respondents confirm, boosts the EP of both men and women because, like slimness and fitness, it implies you’ve got the vitality to lead the charge and not succumb to setback. While anecdotal evidence suggests the band of “age acceptability” for women is narrower than for men, the statistics on surgical interventions are impressive for both men and women. Like women, men are shelling out on a staggering scale. Hair treatments are a case in point, with men spending $1.8 billion a year on hair implants and other treatments to prevent baldness. A full head of hair for a man signals youth and vigor. (Consider that Ronald Reagan’s ample head of hair helped voters disregard the fact that, at sixty-nine, he was the oldest president to take office.) Both men and women are also turning to plastic surgery as a solution to ageism. Facelifts are up—126,000 in 2012, a 6 percent increase from 2011—and Botox procedures continue to be the rage (6.1 million treatments in 2012, up 8 percent from 2011). In fact, so many men are opting for Botox injections that there’s a slang term for it: Brotox. But the real stunner in terms of youth-enhancing interventions for women is the “upper arm lift,” a procedure that’s up 4,400 percent since 2000.

As one who launched a new organization and a new career in my fifties, I can affirm that nothing signals vitality in a middle-aged woman more than toned arms with a discreet ripple of muscle. My upper arms are pretty amazing—even if I do say so myself (not quite up to Michelle Obama’s standard, but close). I’m a swimmer and relentless about my daily laps: It soothes my soul as well as tones my body. So these days my professional wardrobe centers on slim-cut dresses—high-necked but bare-armed (Michael Kors has a great selection). As the no-sleeve look isn’t always appropriate, I often team these dresses up with a well-cut jacket or a graceful scarf. But it’s the rare business event that doesn’t allow me to slip off my jacket, unsheathe those biceps, and prove I’m up to the task before me.

If you cannot impress everyone with your obvious vitality, then at least make sure you minimize signs of age and downplay any infirmity. Consider how Franklin Delano Roosevelt managed his disability: Despite being neither young nor vital, he persuaded the world he was both, winning an unprecedented fourth term. Voters knew he’d been stricken with polio, and some Republicans tried to capitalize on it by suggesting that, as “a cripple,” he was unfit for higher office. Yet FDR, who established what became the March of Dimes during his presidency, “did not conceal his physical limitation except to prevent his opponents from making political capital out of it,” enlisting the press to make sure photographs showed him standing unassisted. As a result, he was perceived as a leader who’d overcome disability to prevail defeating formidable challenges.

The good news is that you don’t need to ace all elements of appearance. If wearing high heels causes such toe-pinching agony that you can’t deliver a dynamite presentation, then by all means wear flats and shift attention to your perfectly cut skirt or dress. The crucial point to keep in mind is that appearance is the medium for your message and, as such, it should neither distract nor detract from what you stand for and what you want to say.


Avoiding appearance blunders (which oftentimes involves circumventing prejudice) is big—almost as important as nailing those five top appearance picks.

Provocative dressing tops the list of appearance blunders for women (see Figure 8). Senior men find an overtly sexual female colleague tantalizing and terrifying at the same time. And they have reason to be scared. Sex seems to addle the mind of accomplished, ambitious male leaders—they abandon reason and do stupid things (Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer come to mind). Let’s face it, nothing is more potentially career-ending for senior men than an illicit affair with a subordinate. Research conducted by CTI in 2010 reveals that illicit affairs—the actuality of one or the appearance of one—are toxic, as severe penalties accrue to both parties suspected of a dalliance. Fully 64 percent of senior male executives are hesitant to have one-on-one contact with high-performing junior women—out of fear, we infer, of fomenting perceptions that could lead to career derailment or even litigation. Hence the vehement reaction to blouses that feature cleavage, skirts that reveal a stretch of upper thigh, and knit dresses that cling to curvy bodies.

leadership list
Looking unkempt in ways that aren’t cool is the blunder that tops the list for men and comes in second for women. Fully 76 percent of senior executives say that being disheveled detracts from the EP of a man (rumpled jackets, ill-fitting collars, baggy or unbelted pants, scuffed shoes). In interviews they talked about how a disheveled appearance signals laziness and distracts attention. As one leader said, “Ketchup on a shirt or gravy on a tie catches the eye and makes it impossible to pay attention to more substantive qualities.” So take pains to avoid looking sloppy and schlumpy—shine your shoes, retire blouses with underarm stains, repair fallen hems, take up too-long slacks, and iron your clothes. This will telegraph to those around you that you won’t tolerate messiness in yourself or your work.

One distressing outcome: our survey respondents generated a list of appearance blunders for women that’s literally twice as long as the list they generated for men. It would appear that women are judged, and found wanting, on many more visual attributes than men. Take makeup. A professional woman can commit an appearance blunder by wearing either too little or too much. For a man—unless he is a TV anchor—makeup is a nonissue. In addition to the length of the list, women tend to be judged more harshly than men. On the weight front, for example, a woman can be struck off the list if she’s overweight, while a man has to be obese before he’s passed over. Later on in this blog we shall explore in detail how and why women are scrutinized so closely and held to higher standards. At this point, suffice it to say that some of this critical attention smacks of gender bias. As Linda Huber of Moody’s points out, “There are many more unspoken, unwritten rules for women than men. And while we’ve made progress, it’s likely to stay that way.”

Leadership characteristics list: You're in control

Long before her historic meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1979, Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only female prime minister, demonstrated she was not a woman who would back down. Unwavering in her principles and unfazed by popular discontent, she’d emerged from Edward Heath’s cabinet as a new kind of conservative, one who would champion individual empowerment over government intervention even as unemployment rose to record levels. So when the Soviets, hoping to denigrate her, dubbed her the Iron Lady, Thatcher immediately embraced the image publicly, as it paid tribute to both her steely resolve and her regal bearing. “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western World,” she declared in a January 1976 speech to Conservatives in her home constituency of Finchley. Clearly, she relished being seen as a leader of the free world who was both female and feminine and instilled fear and respect among strongmen opposed to everything she stood for.

And well she should have. Because Maggie Thatcher’s image was one she carefully, consciously constructed. She worked on her look as assiduously as she worked on her voice. Long before anyone spoke of “image makeovers,” Thatcher submitted to the ministrations of Gordon Reece, the television producer and marketing executive who’d brilliantly positioned her as an unthreatening homemaker during the “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” days of austerity in the Heath cabinet, and then, just as brilliantly, sent her off to luxury clothier Aquascutum when she won the 1979 election. “Gordon was absolutely terrific,” Thatcher revealed to her biographer. “He understood that it wasn’t enough to have the right policies; one had to look good in putting them over.” And she did. For Thatcher’s visit to the Soviet Union, Marianne Abrahams, head of the venerable Aquascutum design team, outfitted her in tailored two-piece suits and seven “statement” coats—“a system that suited her on a daily basis so that she could be beautifully dressed and groomed and get on with running the country.”

The look that Thatcher adopted—the halo of hair, the large pearl jewelry, the bold and broad-shouldered suits, and the formidable handbag—proved so effective that other female leaders of the era were quick to follow (Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham was a dead ringer). U.S. diplomat Madeleine Albright picked up on (and made her signature) the large brooch on the lapel. Everywhere, big hair and shoulder pads recast women at work as more substantive players. Thatcher’s black Launer handbags, which she tended to use as briefcases, influenced the size, color, and fashion of women’s work accessories, not to mention how they used them to amplify their clout.

“She knew the importance of image from the very beginning,” says Brenda Maddox, author of Maggie: The First Lady. “She had to put time into the way she dressed, but she got it right. She mastered power dressing before the phrase was even invented.”

This background on Thatcher underscores one final point: Image isn’t inborn. Leaders create it, often with help. They diligently work to refine and maintain it. They take pains to avoid blunders that might destroy it.

And to be considered a leader, so must you.

Leadership characteristics list: Tactics

It’s something of a final frontier, this business of appearance—not because others haven’t probed it, but because so very few have offered guidelines that might apply across the spectrum of workplace environments. There is, of course, no one “right” look. You must determine, by paying close attention to office culture cues and studying the leaders around you, what signals EP in your environment.

That said, from our deep tranche of qualitative research we can offer insights from individual managers across occupations and industries. At the minimum their stories and tips should prompt you to become conscious and therefore much more intentional about your appearance—a critical move toward acing it.

Leadership characteristics list: Showcase your strengths

The stunning actress Olivia Wilde describes how, early in her career, she headed out for an audition wearing a huge cashmere turtleneck sweater over pants. Her boss stopped her at the door. “Olivia, what are you doing?” she cried. “You can’t wear that! You have to wear something tight and sexy!” Wilde was taken aback: As a serious actress, confident in her craft, she wanted to focus her audience on her performance, not her physique. Her boss listened patiently, nodding in understanding, and then cut her off. “While I can appreciate you’re not eager to sell yourself on pure sex appeal,” she explained to Wilde, “it’s ridiculous for someone with your curves to go into an audition hiding them. It signals a lack of awareness, even an immaturity on your part: This is a business that makes money by showcasing such assets.” Wilde got it. She also won the audition.

Leadership characteristics list: Seek professional help

Go to a department store makeup counter and consult with the cosmetician. Hire a personal shopper. Consider hiring an image consultant. Paying for advice up front can save you a lot of money—and spare you some costly blunders.

A drug representative for Bristol-Myers Squibb described having to send home a member of her team who showed up for a presentation at a Princeton, New Jersey, hospital wearing a sundress and open-toed shoes. “We’re meeting with people who are making life-and-death decisions in there,” the rep told this young woman. “You can’t hope to persuade them that you grasp the gravity of their mission if you look like you’re headed to a picnic.” Reflecting on this incident and others like it, this rep told me, “Too often, I find, people just aren’t thinking beyond themselves.”

Leadership characteristics list: If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't

American Express’s Kerrie Peraino advises women to listen to “that little voice of anxiety” when it comes to vetting wardrobe choices for work. “If I’m tugging at the back of my blouse all day to keep the neckline from showing too much cleavage, then clearly I’m not comfortable in that blouse—and won’t derive a lot of confidence from wearing it,” she explains. She adds, “Your work attire is your armor. It should make you feel invincible, not add to your insecurities.”

Leadership characteristics list: Beware of casual/ cool cultures

Last June, I was invited to keynote a session titled “Beyond Mad Men” at the Cannes Lions Festival—the annual extravaganza of the global advertising community. Michael Roth, the CEO of Interpublic Group, wanted me to help him make the case that Don Draper didn’t cut the mustard these days—that the industry needed more women at the top (only 3 percent of creative directors at the top fifty companies are female). I came through for Roth—making a compelling case for why gender smarts mattered for the bottom line. But brilliant presentation aside, I must admit I was humbled by the visuals around me. This gathering of Mad Men (and a handful of Mad Women) showed the disadvantage women were at on the image front in a sector that is all about image. It’s not that the “creatives” at this festival were drop-dead gorgeous—they were mature professionals in their forties and fifties and had their fair share of wrinkles and paunches. Rather, what was considered cool and chic was decidedly weighted in favor of men. The signature look of the rock stars of this advertising extravaganza comprised two-day-old stubble, bespoke shorts, and designer flip-flops. How does a woman—no matter how creative—bring this off?

This gender gap was painfully apparent at the awards ceremony. The men, blithely balding but sprouting impressive amounts of gray facial hair, looked suitably creative while still coming off as credible executives. The women, however, just looked wrong. Some played the formal card but ended up looking uncomfortable and straitjacketed in skirts and pantyhose; others played the expensive-casual game. It mostly backfired. Very few forty-five-year-women look like creative rock stars (or senior executives) in shorts and flip-flops—no matter how much they cost. They look as though they’re heading to the beach. And as for facial hair . . .

Leadership characteristics list: Stay in costume to stay in character

A colleague of mine describes how her boss leaves a suit jacket hanging on the back of his door in the event he’s suddenly obliged to impress a client or superior. That’s a flawed strategy, and here’s why. First, you can’t always know who among the people you encounter is worth impressing, nor can you always anticipate when and where you’ll run into them. Second, gravitas isn’t something you hang on the back of the door and wear at will. As we’ve discussed, a polished, well-put-together look is what communicates you’re a person who is both respectful of colleagues and clients and is yourself worthy of respect. Throwing on a jacket isn’t likely to fool anyone. To do and be your best, you must strive to look your best, and that look depends on forethought and attention to detail. It’s not an act so much as a mindset. Wear it when you walk in the office door and don’t take it off until you’re back home.

Don't Let you bling steal your thunder

Clanging, banging jewelry is not the best if you’re giving a presentation, Linda Huber told me in an interview. “Anything that calls attention to itself rather than the message you’re giving is not the best.”

Leadership characteristics list: When in doubt lean on your sponsor

Trevor Phillips, former chair of Great Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, describes how he received an invitation from the deputy prime minister to Chevening, the stately country retreat shared by the deputy prime minister and the foreign secretary (akin to getting invited to Camp David by an American president). His fiancée, a graduate of Cambridge, asked him what he thought she should wear. Phillips shrugged off her concern. “Don’t be stupid,” she persisted. “Find out what I am supposed to wear.” So Phillips put a call into the deputy prime minister’s secretary, who assured him there was no dress code—guidance he duly passed along to his wife-to-be. “You’re an idiot,” she told him. “ ‘No dress code’ means, if you don’t know the code, you shouldn’t be there.” Phillips, a London native of Afro-Caribbean descent, turned to his sponsor for guidance. “If, like me, you’re an outsider to these circles, it’s essential you consult someone who not only can help you crack the code, but whose vested interest in you will prompt them to do so,” he says.

Leadership characteristics list: Ask for specific feedback

Giving pointers to someone else about his or her appearance is daunting and difficult, which is why you see so many blunders on parade by people who should know better. So make it easier: Ask your superiors for feedback on your attire, hairstyle, and grooming. Provide assurance that you will receive their observations and suggestions not as fault-finding but as constructive guidance, and dig deep to ensure you understand how to correct your gaffes. Live up to your promise by listening rather than reacting defensively. While it will be painful to hear what you’re doing wrong, consider how much more painful it is to learn about your blunders later, from someone else, when it’s too late to reverse first impressions.

Leadership characteristics list: Buy yourself greater latitude

Executive presence is all about inspiring trust and confidence in others. Once you’ve done that and are successfully “over the bar,” you can start to play with the dress code; ultimately you get to set the dress code. Steve Jobs, let it be said, didn’t start out with fifty black turtlenecks: That signature look (thinking different, dressing different) evolved in lockstep with his extraordinary success. In the battle between conformity and authenticity, you will eventually prevail—not, perhaps, as a brand-new hire but down the road when you have some seniority. Get over the bar. Establish your bona fides. Win everyone’s faith and confidence. Then make your own rules.



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