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Lessons from Nancy Pelosi's Body Language

The recent State of the Union address, no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, provided much fodder for learning and dissecting!

This article is not about politics. I have no desire to wade through those waters. They are troubled enough. Opinions are already in large supply and we’re all entitled to each of them.

In my view, there’s a far more fascinating takeaway from the State of the Union address: Nancy Pelosi’s body language.

As female leaders know well, every encounter is an opportunity to build credibility, cast down negative stereotypes and create new models of excellence in leadership. In terms of perception, women are often starting from a deficit as we strive for entry at the right tables in order to demonstrate our talents.

Has she been tested? Is she too soft? Will she be able to deliver the tough message? These are questions that all too many women have heard at some point in our lives—or those which we work hard to avoid hearing. Work and life are hard enough without carrying additional burdens of proof of our competence around.

When we show up, it should be unequivocally clear to all with whom we interact, that we belong there. We are ready—for the calm, as well as the storms should they come.

Body language is a great indicator of that readiness. It is also a great equalizer. People trust confident and calm leaders. They are understandably rattled by leaders who wear their emotions on their sleeves or have not mastered the art of body language.

Shrinking in one’s physical space, childish behavior, expressions out of sync with your words and delicate handshakes are but a few no-no’s around body language—particularly for women. At the State of the Union, Nancy committed two of the more egregious body language mistakes: being overly expressive and excessive, misappropriated smiling.

As the President was speaking, it was simply impossible not to watch her. She was animated and painfully uncomfortable. What she was thinking and feeling should have been a total mystery to us. She should have shared her discontent in the proper forums afterwards. She became part of the story in all the wrong ways. It was an unforced error. I can certainly relate to those.

The big lesson for female leaders watching Nancy Pelosi that night can be summed up in a familiar expression: Never let them see you sweat!

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