Take a moment and picture a leader. Imagine not just their face or character, but visualize their whole body from their hair down to their feet. Did you picture someone standing wide and tall, looking down sternly from on high? Or did you picture someone equally confident but friendlier, smiling up at their followers? 

Whichever way your imagination went, new science says you're probably right.

Research by a team of Canadian psychologists recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that all leaders can actually be divided into two types. If you want to know which type someone is, just look at their body language. 

What type of leader are you? Check your body language.  

The research was built on a simple observation: There are two ways to get ahead. You can dominate people by making them fear you or you can win their loyalty with your intelligence and kindness. Anyone who has ever gotten through high school or voted in a presidential election has probably made a similar observation, but does this common sense model of leadership hold up under scientific scrutiny? 

Several previous studies suggested so, but to confirm this and dig into how these types of leaders present themselves, the researchers behind the latest study designed a series of five experiments. They generated computer avatars of leaders, asked actors to perform the role of leaders, observed real-life groups sort themselves into hierarchies during a task, and asked volunteers to evaluate real-life politicians. 

No matter how they ran the experiments, the same pattern emerged. Those asked to rate leaders responded to two distinct body language patterns. Both were associated with power and leadership, but people viewed the two types of leaders very differently. 

The first type of leader tended to adopt a stereotypical "power pose": Think of Donald Trump staring down from a campaign poster with a serious expression and his body spread wide. Observers saw this type as dominant. Essentially, they intimidate people into following them. 

Instead of looking down with a scowl, the other type of leader looked up with a smile. Like dominant types, they stood with their chest out, but they took up less space. These folks were also seen as leaders, but they were viewed as caring and competent rather than dominating. They gained followers through prestige, which they developed by demonstrating their expertise and helping people. 

In the words of the authors, all this "provides strong converging evidence that dominance and prestige are associated with distinct nonverbal signals which naturally emerge in ecologically valid group settings and real-world rank contests, and result in rank conferral from others."

Or in everyday language, the researchers' initial hypothesis played out. When we say "leader," we actually have two distinct types of people in mind. One rises through dominating others. This type of leader physically takes up a lot of space, tends to tilt their head downward, and often wears a fierce facial expression. The other type relies on prestige, not fear. You can spot them by the upward tilt of their heads, their far greater likelihood of smiling, and their less expansive posture. 

Prestige or dominance 

As the British Psychological Society Research Digest write-up of the new research notes, this difference may help explain why the popular idea of "power posing" seems to offer inconsistent results. Maybe it works sometimes and not others because the traditional "superman" (or woman) stance mimics dominant leaders and this approach works only in some situations and only for some people. 

Which is fascinating if you happen to have been following the fierce (if sometimes nerdy) debate on the subject. But this research is useful even if you haven't. It can help you assess both your own leadership style and the style of those you work with. All you have to do to start getting a sense of whether someone relies on dominance or prestige to get ahead is to look at their body language.

Published on: Feb 13, 2020
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