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Lead Your Team Leadership

What Leadership Looks Like (and Why It Matters)

What Leadership Looks Like (and Why It Matters)
Your professional image is more than how you dress. It includes your interpersonal skills and online presence, too. / Credit: Shutterstock

Wondering why you keep getting passed over for promotions and job opportunities? If your résumé and qualifications are outstanding but your professional image doesn't quite match up, the higher-ups are going to have a hard time taking you seriously. It may sound superficial, but the way you present yourself really does matter when it comes to your career, and if you're hoping to advance, it's not something you should take lightly.

David McKnight, author of "The Zen of Executive Presence" (DAMstyle, 2013), has been helping professionals in numerous industries improve their self-presentation since he founded his image and lifestyle consulting firm, DAMstyle, in 2006. McKnight has observed a major image problem among today's workers, particularly millennials, who are taking their leadership image cues from casual young CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

"It comes down to awareness," McKnight told BusinessNewsDaily. "There's no class on professional image in college or business school — how to act, carry yourself, or dress appropriately. Millennials are smart and well-qualified, but they're seeing a casual overtone in imagery and style presented by newer executives and they think that's okay. That's not the norm at larger firms and Fortune 500 companies, so they need to be aware of the industry they're going into and be appropriate for it." [The Fashion Faux Pas That Could Sink Your Career]

McKnight named four aspects of a person's self-presentation that comprise his or her professional image:

  • Visual: Your physical appearance — how you dress, your grooming and your personal style. While many offices are beginning to adopt a more "casual" dress code, one's wardrobe choices should still be neat and appropriate for a work setting.
  • Communication style: Verbal expression and nonverbal body language. Leaders, McKnight said, need to be conscious of their written and oral communication, but also of what their behavior, posture and other physical markers say about them.
  • Business etiquette: Behaving appropriately in an office setting and with potential or current clients. This is crucial for newer leaders, who may not be as savvy about navigating these types of situations.
  • Online presence: Your public social media profiles and other information about you that can be accessed through search engines.

Of these elements, McKnight said that online reputation is especially important in our Internet-driven society.

"For the newer generation of leaders, it's important to be aware of the image and messages you communicate through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc., and especially what comes up when you Google yourself," he said. "It's also important for the older generation. Having a professional online presence shows you're seasoned and mature, but that you're current and not afraid to embrace the latest changes and technologies."

McKnight pointed out that professional image isn't only relevant to suit-and-tie workers in 9-to-5 corporate America. Leaders in any industry can benefit from a good, hard look at their personal presentation. Here are a few things to keep in mind when evaluating and managing your image:

Recognize the importance of image. All aspects of your professional image matter and are important if you want to be taken seriously as a leader, or at least as a candidate for leadership positions. Image maintenance is a continual process, but before you can improve your self-presentation, you must be aware of the need to make those improvements. Take a look at your image from a holistic perspective and determine what areas can be enhanced. Then, develop a plan to implement any necessary changes.

Changes are gradual and rooted in habits. Change never happens overnight. McKnight compared adjusting your professional image to a makeover reality show: You can get a team of people to instantly transform your look, but if you don't keep up with it, you'll go right back to how you looked before. Your plan to improve your image must be long term and start with changing some of your basic habits about dressing, interacting with people and using social media.

Be authentic. Your internal image and identity must be harmonious and congruent with the image you project on the outside, McKnight said. If you're a creative, artistic person, you'll feel out of your element in a standard three-piece suit. McKnight recommended interjecting your personal style in a way that isn't overwhelming or intrusive, such as wearing brightly colored socks or ties.

"Your image is an asset," McKnight said. "Leverage it as a tool to distinguish yourself from your competitors and colleagues."

Originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.

Nicole Fallon

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. Nicole served as the site's managing editor until January 2018, and briefly ran Business.com's copy and production team. Follow her on Twitter.