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Leadership Presence And The GOP Debate


Dr Carol Kinsey Goman - Expert Author

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If you are hoping to be the next Republican presidential nominee, success will likely be determined by two very different standards: your past performance record and your current ability to project that elusive quality called “leadership presence.” In a televised political debate, your past performance may be a source of endorsement -- or used as ammunition by your opponents -- but it is your leadership presence that is under the most scrutiny by an audience.

Research shows that, after party affiliation, the most important predictor of how people vote is their emotional reaction—or gut feeling—toward the candidate. That’s why leadership presence plays such a key role. Most of the emotional component of a message is not in what is being said, but rather in how it is said and how the politician looks when saying it.

From a nonverbal perspective, leadership presence is a mixed set of signals that convey status, authority and power as well as warmth, empathy, and friendliness. Leadership presence may be enhanced by signals that make the speaker appear confident and in control and diminished by negative body language that conveys arrogance, insincerity, hyper-activity or low confidence. The latter include frowns, grimaces, whinny voice, lethargy, wooden or "practiced" gestures, loss of control, stammering, fillers "ahs" and "ums."

After watching the GOP debates last week, I compared notes with Patrick A. Stewart, Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science in the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. In addition to his book Debatable Humor: Laughing Matters on the 2008 Presidential Primary Campaign, Stewart has published research on nonverbal communication by politicians in the journals Presidential Studies Quarterly, Political Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, International Journal of Humor Research, and Politics and the Life Sciences.

I’ll be checking in with him (and writing about our conversations) throughout the political debates. Here are few of our initial observations:

Status signals

Status signals convey authority, competence, confidence and power. People send these signals by standing (or being) tall and taking up physical space.

Goman: While Donald Turmp’s political answers may have lacked substance, his wide gestures, pugnacious expression, and blunt delivery sent strong signals of self-confidence and a sense of dominance.

Stewart: Jeb Bush’s height (he was the tallest contender) and large head are also a nonverbal advantage. (The taller candidate has won the popular vote in 67% of all U.S. presidential elections.)

Warmth signals

The nonverbal signals of warmth convey empathy, likeability, friendliness, and inclusiveness.

Stewart: In happiness/reassurance displays, nonthreatening gestures are combined with reassuring facial actions such as smiling and raised eyebrows.

Goman: So, when John Kasich delivered his message of inclusiveness with a pleasant facial expression, it helped him come across as authentic and genuinely nice. And when Christie leaned comfortably on the lectern and spoke in a relaxed, conversational tone – he also increased his warmth.

Attention adhesion

There is a section of the brain known as Broca’s Area, which is a sort of filter for sensory input, sifting through everything we see and hear and read to separate the useful, the pertinent, and the unusual from the rest of what we can call background noise. In other words, Broca’s Area looks at all input and lets pass what is familiar and commonplace, but stops to examine what is novel or surprising. When something is described as having arrested our attention, the phrase is more than apt: some piece of input or information has in fact been detained for questioning.

Stewart: Marco Rubio surprised me in how well he held my attention - he had what could be considered an "ineffable" quality - but mainly it was his calm and collected performance.

Goman: When Ben Carson hesitated before answering questions, he captured the attention of my small “focus group” who viewed the pause as a signal that he was thoughtfully considering what to say, rather than just waiting for a chance to deliver a memorized statement.

Problem areas caused by verbal/nonverbal misalignment

Trust is established through alignment between what is being said and the body language that accompanies it. If a speaker’s body language is not in full agreement with the spoken words, the audience consciously or subconsciously perceives duplicity, uncertainty or (at the very least) internal conflict.

Goman: One of the most telling signs of misalignment that I caught was Jeb Bush tilting his head to one side (a signal of vulnerability and deference) when discussing his father and brother and stating “I’m my own man.” That message needed to be delivered with his head held high and straight.

Stewart: While I thought that Ben Carson was pretty solid, he seemed to “back away” from the questions by pulling his head back as if in “flight mode.”

Goman: Although they may not be aware they are doing so, audience members are also evaluating a candidate’s sincerity by the timing of his or her gestures. Authentic gestures begin split seconds before the words that accompany them. They will either precede the word or will be coincident with the word, but will never come after the word. So when Scott Walker cupped his hands together, as if making a cradle, while talking about babies and abortion, he weakened the impact of a potentially powerful gesture by displaying it after he started speaking, not before.

Stewart: Another thing that struck me is that while Rand Paul had some great lines, his mouth control (lip tightener/pressors), his swaying slightly from side-to-side, and his looking down diminished the authority of his attacks.

Goman: Adding to that was Paul’s finger pointing, eye rolling, higher volume and vocal pitch which made him appear to be less in control than Christie, whom he was confronting.

Closing thoughts

Leadership presence is not just relevant for politicians during debates. The underlying principles are crucial for anyone with aspirations for promotion to senior management – or for existing executives who wants to increase their influence and impact. When I coach clients or give seminars on this topic, I always begin with helping people define their personal brand – based on their values and the ways in which they want to be perceived. Because everything else about their leadership presence should reflect this core.

In the debates, Donald Trump’s behaviors worked for him because they were congruent with his personal brand as an outspoken, brash, and highly successful businessman. But Stewart also pointed out that Jeb Bush’s blander, “safer” style (congruent with his personal brand as a thoughtful and seasoned leader) may have served as an empathetic counterpoint to Trump.

About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker, leadership presence coach, and media expert on body language in the workplace. She is a leadership contributor for and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.” Email:, Phone: 510-526-1727, Website:

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2015-11-04 09:12:37 in Personal Articles

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