Leadership Starts In Our Physical Presence

Written by: Alison Escalante, MD, FAAP
Published on: Aug 26, 2021
This article is published in the 2021 edition of the
Women in Medicine Summit Compendium
Click here to find out more and read the other articles

By Alison Escalante, MD, FAAP

We identify leaders by their physical features: both their appearance and their embodied presence.

Try thinking of someone you consider a leader. Very likely the first thing that will come to mind is an image of them and a felt sense of their impact on you. Leaders project power, presence and confidence in the posture and motion of their bodies. They communicate it in the tempo and quality of their voice.

If you still doubt that our perception of a leader starts with the physical, then consider the simple question of what a leader looks like. For example, take a moment to imagine a doctor. The vast majority of people in America will immediately envision a tall white male, even though 35 percent of practicing physicians are women and 44 percent are minorities (Diversity in Medicine, 2019; Bean, 2020).

The majority of physicians in the U.S. are not white males, yet the white male remains our mental default. Indeed, simply being male can make someone more likely to be seen as a leader. “A person’s success often depends on whether others believe what they say. Growing evidence suggests that people are less likely to believe statements made by women rather than men,” Shanthi Manian and Ketki Sheth write in their paper on assertive cheap talk and the gender gap (2021).

When a person’s gender or minority status does not match the prevailing expectation of what a leader should look like, they may face unconscious bias. The experience of unconscious bias can lead people to feel uncomfortable and may make them less likely to display the physical attributes of a leader (Escalante, 2020). Similarly, advice to fake it until you make it can produce a jarring sense of inauthenticity in the physical messages we send as it creeps into our voices and our body language.

Why? Because feeling out of sync with yourself or others can trigger the fight-or-flight response through a pre-conscious autonomic mechanism (Porges, 2007). And that fight-or-fight response is contagious to others: when one nervous system is in fight-or-flight, all the others in the room pick up on it and start to initiate the response, too. That’s because human nervous systems constantly send each other messages, causing people to co-regulate or sync up (Renvall, et al, 2020). Our nervous systems are highly tuned to detect signs of danger, and that’s why one persons’ tension instantly impacts everyone else.

How then can women and minorities overcome this real barrier to presenting as the leaders they really are? Current leadership methods often focus on cognitive techniques and inner pep talks. But starting with the body may provide even greater value. Connecting to our own bodies by regulating our autonomic nervous system (which continuously monitors our environment for signals of safety or danger) activates the most powerful portions of our brain. Simple techniques like breathing deeply with a slow outbreath or providing deep pressure input can take us out of fight-or-flight and into the social nervous system. Our faces become open and expressive, our voices more musical and those around us feel our presence. When we physically embody our leadership, we think clearly, and we communicate persuasively and authentically (Escalante, 2020).

Most importantly, leading from your physical presence allows you to send pre-conscious messages to the bodies of those around you, from your nervous systems to theirs. By using a musical voice from deep in your abdomen, regulated breathing, open and dynamic facial expressions and the rooted but flexible stance of an athlete, you can send messages of safety to others. And, when people feel safe, they are more likely to trust you as a leader.


Alison EscalanteAlison Escalante, MD, FAAP

A board-certified Pediatrician, an Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at Rush University, a TEDx speaker, and a contributor to Forbes and Psychology Today.

Learn more at AlisonEscalante.com.

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