Lessons to learn from Kamala Harris and her leadership style

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Written by Sheelagh McNamara and Lisa Akesson on 2 February 2021 in Opinion
Opinion

Sheelagh McNamara and Lisa Akesson explore how newly appointed vice-president Kamala Harris demonstrates leadership using her body, breath and voice.

As newly inaugurated vice-president Kamala Harris begins her term in office, the true significance of her appointment is being felt across the United States – and all around the world.

With women in leadership firmly under the spotlight let’s look at Kamala's ‘executive presence’ – her authentic and empathic leadership and communication style that has helped her progress.

The fascinating question for many is, what impact has Kamala’s leadership style had in terms of her election to vice-president?

Executive presence

Communicating as a leader isn’t solely about what you say, it’s also about your ability to command a room and make your presence felt.

Harris has not only shattered the glass ceiling as the first Black and Asian woman to have become the vice-president of the United States, but she also exudes executive presence through her empathic and authentic communication and leadership style.

Harris’s wide variety of tone, pace and pitch is what keeps us engaged so we listen to her every word

Analysing the way Harris delivers a speech, or the way she speaks when being interviewed, she effortlessly communicates with confidence and gravitas and is not afraid to let her personality and feminine style shine through. Her dynamic persona, general warmth and contagious smile mean that she presents herself as a very approachable individual.

Harris’s executive presence also makes her both likeable and trustworthy, as she combines the resonant tone of her voice with a deeper pitch, meaning she is able to speak with authority whilst still exuding a calming presence.

Credibility and relatability

Building trust is incredibly important, as a great leader should be both credible and consistent. For some, it can be challenging to deliver powerful messages under the intense scrutiny of others, but Harris appears to do this with a graceful ease.

She is authentically herself, being alert and relaxed at the same time, and is clearly comfortable in her own skin – all traits which make her extremely relatable and credible. 

 

Audience members determine an instant impression about a speaker – likely in a fraction of a second after they speak – meaning they can very quickly form an opinion about the speaker’s credibility. This shows just how important those first few seconds of a speech can be. 

Harris succeeds at this by owning her space, maintaining a strong and upright posture, with both feet firmly placed so she can evenly balance her weight. She uses a variety of gestures, including a modified steeple hand-clasp, which combined with her neutral expression, denotes power – for example, when she is signalling a lack of belief.

Vocal and physical presence

Using body language to maintain a physical presence is another vital communication skill for leaders to master.

Expanding on Harris’s ability to own her space she root herself to the ground and stand tall to give her instant presence, she also uses a wide range of gestures that help to highlight her points and allow the message to land with the audience.

She is not afraid of silence or using a pause when she speaks, showing she is a confident communicator and someone who has self-assurance and conviction.

Gestures help bring a speech to life by giving energy to the voice and face. With someone who is animated and has a good vocal range, the audience will be naturally attracted to their technique of delivery. Harris’s wide variety of tone, pace and pitch is what keeps us engaged so we listen to her every word.

Demonstrating grace under pressure

Leaders often have to work in intense situations, which can lead to communication breakdowns if not handled well. Harris has never been seen to buckle under the pressure, frequently demonstrating another quality all good leaders should have – grace under pressure.

Harris’s ability, and the finesse with which she dealt with Mike Pence’s interruptions during the vice-presidential debate last October, is a great credit to her skills as a leader and communicator. All she had to do was simply stop his repeated interruptions, with a gentle smile, direct eye-contact, a stop-palm position and the frequent repetition of her saying – ‘I’m speaking’.

This allowed her to assert her dominance, her right to speak and be heard; but she did so in a way that was non-confrontational while, again, owning her space through her physical presence.

 

About the authors

Executive coaches Sheelagh McNamara and Lisa Akesson co-deliver the RADA Business Executive Presence for Women programme.

 

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