Kirsten Harms is one of my favorite friends. She directed the Berlin Deutsche Opera Theatre for ten years and just recently directed a wonderful production of Madamme Butterfly in Stockholm. She’s smart, beautiful, elegant and very talented. But what brought us together was our shared views on leadership and how the human body confirms or betrays its owners’ ambitions. In Opera as in business, owning one’s place is essential to earn follower trust.

In Opera as in business, owning one’s place is essential to earn follower trust.

It all started the way great friendships often do: drinking white wine in a hotel sky bar with spectacular views over Rome. We had attended a full day of conferences and panels in our International Women’s Forum and we were comparing notes about key messages and best speakers. As it turned out, Kirsten’s decades of experience preparing singers to impersonate kings and heroes on stage was not that far away from my own work with CEOs. In fact, we ended up joining forces to train high executives in multinational corporations. And space, believe it or not, is the first message most would-be leaders get wrong.

And space, believe it or not, is the first message most would-be leaders get wrong.

That first day in Rome we had witnessed an especially revealing example of how space influences a crowd’s opinion. During one of the panels a young, good looking Italian architect had discussed design with a discrete, brainy and supposedly prestigious woman. The fact that I can’t tell you much about her is already evidence of where she failed to create an impact. Not only did the Italian architect take up most of the talking space during the discussion.

He also occupied three fourths of the white leather sofa they were both sitting on. The woman was actually older and far more accomplished than her Italian counterpart, but we hardly saw her in her crouched little cross-legged posture. His waving arms and dynamic dance from one side of the sofa to the other, however, lulled us all, quite unknowingly, into the warm embrace of his charming accent. He created a huge impact on the room. She was forgotten a couple minutes into the following debate.

Interestingly, animals know this rule far too well. The first thing a dog does when he sees a stranger is bark: “hear how far my voice travels and recognize my territory”. Horses will fiercely run around occupying large areas to signify how much in charge they are and how little you are in comparison. Kingly opera singers will walk around the stage in slow grand strides to impress us with their might and power before they start singing. Owning the space is the first sign of leadership in the animal kingdom. So why do so many executives ignore its importance?

Owning the space is the first sign of leadership in the animal kingdom. So why do so many executives ignore its importance?

For one thing, we’re the intellectual generation. For some really dumb reason, we seem to think that anything that isn’t scientifically proven or clearly instructed in our conceptual studies is not important. So the animal wisdom carried along in millenary cultural traditions all around the world has fallen flat into oblivion with us wise guys and gals. Our next problem is we’re in a hurry about most everything in life. Which is stupid as well, because you see, in the animal kingdom if a guy is running really, really fast, there must be a bigger, stronger guy running after him.

Powerful leaders among animals move as little and as slowly as needed to make an impact. Once again Kirsten’s expertise was in agreement: “In opera you will never see a king running on stage”. They also move slowly to let the audience know how important they are. Too many executives, unfortunately, seem to be finishing a call, or sending a critical email or running late to preside meetings where they need to make an impact in order to actually get the job done.

Instead of initiating their reunions with the stance of a leader, they act like a stressed out assistant to the assistant of another really mean person in charge. The third reason why we fail to impersonate leadership with a correct use of space in the room is the secret doubts we hold about our own capacity to fulfill the task at hand. As we mentally decide to take charge and convince everybody of our plans, our bodies actually shrink like oysters beneath our very words.

Here we are, preaching our much rehearsed spiel of high and mighty intentions while our shoulders droop down, or our voice stretches into a murmur, or our head bends down to look at something on our laptop screen. Our words mean to make an impact, but our bodies escape all visibility by shutting down in our very own disappearing style.

We not only fail to use up big amounts of space with strong, booming voices, and direct, far-reaching eye contact. We also ignore the importance of specific places in the room. Those places that clearly signify leadership are often discarded or even avoided with all sorts of creative excuses about flat organizations and empathy, closeness and bla, bla, bla…you have one of these too, don’t you?

Shying away from center stage tells everybody in the room that deep down you’re not sure you can lead them. 

Meeting tables are long instead of round for a reason. Everybody wants to know who presides the meeting by looking at the header of the table. Small stages in large rooms, speaking atriums and screens often indicate the direction in which most people will be looking during the event. These are the places leaders need to occupy in order to be seen, heard and followed. Shying away from center stage tells everybody in the room that deep down you’re not sure you can lead them.

So they stop listening to you after your third word. Cell phones, tables and laptops kidnap their attention because the animal message sent to all the mammal bodies in the room is a red light of alert: “flee the scene, people. Incapable leader in charge means probable death ahead”. Yes, I did say death. In the body to body language of mammals, there is no time for subtleties.

Either it’s life or it’s death: “Tell me quick. I need to survive this very moment before I can think about it”. The next time you need to make an impact during a meeting or event of any kind, remember: Own the leader’s place like any other animal would do. You will be surprised at how much fluidly things will flow when all the animals in the room know who’s in charge.