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People Want to Follow Calm, Assertive Leaders

We teach you to fake it until you make it.

Have you ever seen the cable television show Dog Whisperer, starring Cesar Milan? The title of the show would have you believe it is about how Cesar Milan trains dogs. That is not what this show is about. Cesar Milan trains dog owners to be effective leaders. And what he has to say about canines also applies to humans.

Calm/Assertive Leadership

On the show, Cesar Milan observes that dogs are pack animals. Pack animals are attracted to calm/assertive leaders. Non-assertive pack members are put in their place by the more assertive members.

And this is a theme of the show, where the dog has taken control of the family. On the other hand, pack members who are not calm make other pack members nervous. There is solid research with humans to show that emotions can be contagious.

True pack leadership requires being both calm and assertive at the same time. Dog Whisperer is about how Cesar Milan trains dog owners to behave in a calm, assertive manner. The fun of this cable show is watching how the dog's behavior changes as it observes the owner's new calm, assertive behavior.

Dog Whisperer was filmed in Los Angeles. In New York City's Columbia Business School and Boston's Harvard Business School, Professors Amy Cuddy and Dale Carney work with members of the animal kingdom: business leaders and students. The research team found that effective leaders have high levels of testosterone combined with low levels of cortisol in their bloodstream (2010). What does that mean?

Testosterone is a steroid hormone secreted in both males and females. High levels are associated with assertiveness. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal cortex. High levels of this hormone are associated with stress: It helps the body prepare for "fight or flight."

In other words, high testosterone and low cortisol levels in the blood are associated with calm and assertive behavior.

What Calm, Assertive Leaders Do

The body's feedback loops run in many directions. The research demonstrates that it is possible to manipulate hormonal levels by posing the muscles of the body. The muscles trigger the brain to produce the desired hormones.

One set of muscle positions are called "power poses." A power pose is when you make your body as large as possible. For example, notice what athletes do when they win: They put both arms high up in the air, chest out, head tilted back, and mouth open.

This position is automatically assumed by blind athletes when they win in the Special Olympics. And yet they have never seen anyone assume this pose. Baboons assume this position when they triumph or wish to frighten an enemy.

Maintaining this position for two minutes can increase testosterone production and reduce cortisol levels. In other words, the calm and assertive leadership qualities can be manipulated by your muscles, acting on the brain.

The research team found that two minutes of keeping one's arms tight by one's side and one's legs tightly together will reduce the production of testosterone and increase the production of cortisol. In other words, you can trigger agitation and lack of assertiveness through the way you position your body. Here is my story to confirm this research:

When making a sales call, I generally arrive 15-20 minutes before the scheduled appointment. I am parked in my car and use the extra time to check emails. I realized that I was spending 15 minutes sitting in a "small" posture that would trigger cortisol secretion and reduce testosterone.

You don't generate sales doing that!

I got out of the car and went to my appointment's office. I asked if I might use the men's room. I stood before a mirror doing a power pose. Fortunately for me, nobody entered the room!

During the subsequent sales call, the President asked about my fees. I gave a figure that was 15 percent higher than the figure I had in mind when driving up for the appointment. Instead of selling one assignment, I sold two.

Much of our work with high-potential leaders falls under the framework of "fake it (with your body) until you become it.

What Calm, Assertive Leaders Say

Evan Thomas's history of the Eisenhower Presidency shows how a calm, assertive leader works under intense pressure in high-stakes situations (2012). One of the fascinating stories about this period was a time when the Central Intelligence Agency recommended President Eisenhower authorize the use of covert force to overthrow the elected Guatemalan President.

The CIA Director was asked by President Eisenhower, "What do you think Castillo's (the U.S.-backed leader) chances would be without American-supplied aircraft?"

The Director responded, "About zero."

Eisenhower then asked, "Suppose we supply the aircraft. What would the chances be then?"

The Director responded, "About 20 percent."

President Eisenhower then gave permission for the aid, saying, "The figure of 20 percent was persuasive. If you had told me that the chances were 90 percent, I would have had a much more difficult decision."

Translating this vignette into our model, a statement that there is a 100 percent chance of success would strike Eisenhower as assertive, but not calm. But a 20 percent chance of success appealed to Eisenhower as both calm and assertive. I recoil when someone says, "I guarantee your satisfaction!" It is assertive, but not calm.

Psychometricians use the technical term "predictive validity" to measure the degree to which a score on a scale or test predicts scores on some future measure. In the above example, the CIA Director said that there was a 20 percent chance Castillo would be victorious if the United States supplied aircraft. This is a measurable prediction. And the criterion was that Castillo would be the President of Guatemala.

Every day, meteorologists make predictive validity statements: The chances of rain are 40 percent today.

As a psychologist, I am retained to assess leadership potential. Saying the person has "high" or "low" potential is meaningless. The following is a predictive validity statement: Within 24 months, this person would be promoted a grade higher without assistance, and there is a 60 percent chance the person would be promoted two grades higher with assistance.

Whether the predictive validity statements are made by the CIA Director, a meteorologist, or a psychologist, they are all delivered in a calm, assertive manner. Eisenhower was correct: A statement that there would be a 90 percent chance of success would be assertive indeed, but not calm.

My company also does retained searches at the VP/CEO levels. We make predictive the following predictive validity statement: Within 18 months of the person accepting the position, the boss will score this person as at least 3.5 on a five-point scale on the assessment rating for "Contributes to the top management discussions in a strategic way." That is a measurable predictive statement that we calmly, assertively make to demonstrate our confidence in our ability to find the right talent.

Now You Try It

Do you wish to be perceived as a calm, assertive leader? Think about ways you can articulate predictive validity phrases. Below are some examples:

1. Within three years of you approving this acquisition, our market share will move from 14 to 21 percent.

2. If we provide this course to our Chinese college students, within four years, we will see the percentage of Chinese students seeking to come to our institutions increase by 2 percent, while other institutions will see a drop in Chinese students seeking admission.

3. If we join this global alliance, we will see a 10 percent improvement in referrals we get from outside the United States within three years.

4. If I am lucky enough to get hired by you, I believe that 12 months from today, you will rate me "above average" in the "achievement of sales results."

Your Predictions Might Be Wrong

Now you try it. Think about predictive, measurable statements you can make to prove that you are a calm, assertive leader.

Here is a secret: It is OK to be wrong.

Money managers, psychologists, and weather forecasters make predictions every day. Sometimes these predictions turn out to be valid. And sometimes the predictions are wrong.

In the end, you will be judged on the preponderance of the valid or invalid important predictions you made. You will not be judged by one prediction.

I remember a senior psychologist told me not to be afraid about being bold in making predictions. "It's nice if you are right, but people understand that you may be wrong. Whatever you do, do not be vague."

Calm, assertive leaders are not vague and are not afraid of being wrong.


Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap. “Power posting brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.” PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE,21,10, 2010, pp. 1363-1368.

Evan Thomas. IKE’S BLUFF: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World. NY: Little Brown, 2012.

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