Why should we consider the clothes that we wear as leaders when some of the greatest leaders of the 20th century clearly didn’t?
Would Ghandi or Mother Theresa have achieved as much if they’d worn different clothes? Yes, probably. Their clothes appeared to be of no apparent consequence. Yet these leaders of social change were easily identified by their “uniforms”, their clothes eventually became symbolic of their egalitarianism. Had Ghandi or Mother Theresa worn smarter clothes their messages of social justice could have been diluted so ultimately their clothes were an important element of their leadership style.
Leadership coach Lance Secretan claims, “Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.”
The alignment of a leader’s clothes with her beliefs as well as style of leadership will create an authentic message, nothing is out of kilter. Political leaders have conveyed their control and authority through a variety of sartorial styles, from the very obvious uniform of Hitler’s buttoned up shirt and leather straps to Thatcher’s pearls and tailored blue suits. Such controlled outfits are of particular value to leaders in times of economic recession. While Gordon Brown’s more crumpled appearance was tolerated at the end of a boom period it became symbolic of the financial shambles that he had in part allowed to occur. Suddenly David Cameron’s crisp shirts and smart suits were a welcome alternative. Here was a leader who embraced 21st century society and enabled his public to relate to him, despite his privileged upbringing, often wearing a more informal outfit. But you can bet that every rolled up shirt sleeve and chino trouser leg was pressed within an inch of its life. A leader does not only tow the party line, a leader embodies the party policies and Cameron’s clothes tell us that his policies are fresh and well organized.
These examples illustrate that a leader’s clothes must be in alignment with the ideals and policies they advocate. John Lennon’s message of peace would not have resonated so successfully with his public if he had continued to wear the controlled tight suits of the early 60’s. His aim to promote world peace was reflected through non-threatening flowing robes and long hair. Similarly Sid Vicious was an authentic leader of youthful anarchy with hair styled in threatening spikes and body piercings. Leaders create a bond with those that they seek to lead through wearing similar attire. However, while a leader can show affiliation in this way, a leader also has to stand out so that the rest of the group can recognise her.
How a leader chooses to stand out will be unique to the individual situation and my previous 3rdi magazine articles have illustrated how clothes, accessories and make up can be used. The vital message is that leaders recognise the value of their appearance in conveying their leadership skills. And if life’s too busy to give clothes, make up and accessories enough consideration then call in the experts. A style coach will work with each client to identify how they can develop an authentic style that also conveys their ability to lead saving both time and money. I have worked with a GP who wanted to lead her patients but found that they would not listen, a scientist who was an authority in her field and yet found that male colleagues didn’t follow her lead and a pharmacist who looked too young and pretty for her patients to take her leadership seriously. By developing their appearances each woman discovered that patients and colleagues responded to the visual signals and attitude towards them changed, in some cases in a very short space of time. Leaders should not underestimate the effect of their appearance or their ability to use their appearance to their advantage – in all things sartorial, take the lead.