9 Simple Ways to Be Seen as a Leader (Even if You Don’t Feel Like One)
This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.
You don’t need to be outgoing or eloquent in order for others to see you as a strong manager. Anyone can use these simple communication techniques to come across as more confident, capable, and caring — in other words, like a leader. Which should you be working on?
1. Train yourself to receive tough news with poise.
It’s natural to feel flustered, defensive, or even angry in the heat of a challenging moment. You’re human, after all. So how do you control those emotions in a way that shows you’re level-headed in difficult situations?
- Take a deep breath or two before you say anything. Breathing interrupts your body’s fight-or-flight response and taking a silent moment helps you appear thoughtful and calm, even if your mind is racing.
- Thank the person who shared the news. Nobody likes being the bearer of bad news. When you make your first response a simple “Thank you for letting me know” or “I appreciate your sharing that,” you show that you understand that it took courage for them to speak up — and that you’re not afraid to hear their uncomfortable truth.
- If you need it, ask for more time to process the situation. In a perfect world, you’d be able to troubleshoot in the moment. But if you struggle to think on your feet, call a time-out. By asking “Could I take an hour to think through this and get back to you?” you save yourself from a response you might regret, and you send a signal that the issue is so important that you want to give it your full consideration.
2. When speaking, inject expression and emotion into your voice.
Strong communicators understand that how you say something can matter as much as what you say. To sound more authoritative and help listeners understand the important parts of your message, deliberately adjust your voice:
- Slow down to emphasize key words and phrases. When you get to the core of an idea — or a significant fact, figure, or detail — slow down and take the time to clearly articulate every word before resuming your normal pace.
- Pause after you make an important point to let the information sink in. Stop and take a breath or count to three in your head. It might feel like a long time to you, but it doesn’t to your audience. Instead, it indicates that this part matters so I need to remember it and creates suspense for what you’ll say next.
- Match your tone to the emotional meaning of certain words. For example, if you want to express excitement for a new idea, inject enthusiasm into your voice as you say “I’m excited to try this.” Or, if you’re describing something challenging, modulate your voice to reflect just how hard that challenge is.
3. Use active voice when speaking and writing.
Consider the difference between passive voice (e.g., “The report was compiled”) and active voice (e.g., “My team compiled the report”). Passive voice — when the subject of a sentence is not included or becomes the object — is fine to use sometimes from a grammar standpoint, but it comes across as weak.
On the other hand, active voice shows that you embrace accountability, for example when giving a clear directive (e.g., “Gloria, can you please handle this?” rather than “This needs to be handled”) or admitting a mistake (e.g., “I didn’t give the team enough time to complete the task” rather than “The task wasn’t completed on time”).
4. Be honest when you don’t know something or make a mistake.
Many experts agree that strong leaders show curiosity and well-placed vulnerability. If you try to act like you’re perfect, you’ll inevitably fall short and dent your credibility. Instead, acknowledge your limitations and failures to demonstrate that you’re a self-aware, solution-focused leader. You’ll inspire trust and help others feel safe to speak up and learn from their mistakes.
When you don’t know something, try:
- “I don’t know enough to have a strong point of view. What are your thoughts? I’m also curious to learn what May thinks, since she has experience in this.”
- “I’m excited to lead this project, but you know more about the data analysis part than I do, so I’ll need your input.”
To talk about a current or past mistake, try:
- “I thought the streamlined agenda would work for our team meeting — that was my mistake. Next week, I’ll put more time into it to help the conversation stay on track.”
- “This reminds me of a time when I realized three weeks into a project that I needed to get approval from the head of marketing. I had to completely change my design to get their sign-off. What I learned is that it’s essential to identify all your stakeholders up front.”
Caution: When mentioning your limitations, don’t be so candid that you cause people to question your capability (e.g., “I have no idea!” or “I’m not even sure where to start with this!”). Be sure to include what you will do to find out what you don’t know or recover from a mistake.
5. Give others your undivided attention in every interaction.
Checking your email in a 1-on-1 or sending a text in a meeting might seem like no big deal. But it can seriously hurt your credibility, signaling that you care more about your to-do list than the people in front of you.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true: When you’re fully present in conversations, you demonstrate that you’re invested in what others have to say. In turn, they’re more likely to give you their best thinking — and to value your input. Here are ways to do so:
- Silence your phone and put it out of sight. A buzzing phone distracts everyone. Play it safe and silence it. You can do it! All your messages will still be there when you’re finished.
- Use open body language to show that you’re fully participating. Turn toward the person, uncross your arms, make eye contact, and match your expressions to the conversation (e.g., nodding to show encouragement or adopting a neutral look when the person is making a serious point.
- Respond in ways that help the other person feel heard. For complex issues, you could paraphrase back what the person has said to ensure you understand their point (e.g., “If I understand correctly, you’re saying that …” or “It sounds as if … Do I have that right?”). Or, acknowledge how they feel about the issue. (e.g., “It makes sense that you’re concerned” or “You seem excited about this project”).
6. Offer public, meaningful praise for others’ work.
When you recognize your peers’ and direct reports’ great work, especially in the presence of higher-ups, you can develop a reputation as someone who knows talent and potential when they see it and is comfortable enough with their own standing to compliment and advocate for others. And if those others hear the praise, you’ll demonstrate to them that you notice their good work and care about their success.
Steer clear of generic praise like, “Chan did such a great job on the launch event!” Focus instead on the person’s specific achievement and its impact. For example, “I want to highlight Chan’s contribution to our successful launch event. She kept all stakeholders updated. And when we hit a technical roadblock, she worked with IT and our vendor to resolve the issue. There’s no way we would have been ready in time without her initiative.”
7. When delivering project updates, focus on outcomes rather than tasks completed.
Most likely, your boss and other higher-ups don’t care much about the individual tasks you and your team have completed. They do care about the results of those tasks and how they contribute to bigger goals. When you focus your updates on what they care about, you establish that you understand both the big picture and your team’s role in it — and that you can deliver results.
Poor: “This week, we created three new store displays, posted our specials on social media, and reviewed receipts.”
Better: “To increase average customer spend per visit, we added three new displays in high-foot-traffic areas and promoted our specials on social media. Then we analyzed receipts against our average take and found a six percent increase. We’re going to try more ideas and keep tracking our progress.”
8. Redirect discussions to give others the chance to share, especially if their ideas tend to be overlooked.
Some people take up lots of airtime in discussions, so their contributions are heard while quieter voices get drowned out. When you ensure that everyone has a chance to share their point of view, you’re saying that we need to surface the best ideas — regardless of who offers them or how loudly they’re expressed — in order to do great work.
Here are some phrases you can use to:
- Prompt someone to share their perspective: “Roman, you have a lot of experience in this area. What do you think?” or “I want to be sure our remote participants have a chance to weigh in. Samin and Mike, what are your reactions?”
- Gently call out interruptions: “Greg, please hold that thought for a moment. I don’t think Natasha was finished yet. Natasha?”
- Ask others to respond to a question or idea first, rather than jumping in with your own view: “Who wants to respond to that idea?” or “I want to hear from you all — what are the implications of that idea?”
For those uneasy about speaking up in groups, try talking with them privately about how they prefer to share their thoughts (e.g., by email, in a group chat, or in a later meeting once they’ve had time to prepare).
9. When you disagree, respond by asking an open-ended question before sharing your views.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. That’s Habit 5 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which author Stephen R. Covey called “the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations.”
It’s especially valuable when you’re sharing a differing opinion in a meeting, pushing back against your boss’s terrible idea, or facing any other potential conflict. When you respond first with a question rather than a staunch “I disagree!” or “Well, I think …,” you establish yourself as a thoughtful, deliberate person who respects others’ ideas — even if you still disagree in the end.
You could start with a question that will yield more context in case you’re missing something (e.g., “That’s interesting. Could you share more of the thinking behind your position?”). Or, use your question to gracefully raise a potential issue and get the other person’s perspective (e.g., “If we implemented that idea, what questions do you think our customers would have? And how might we address those?”).