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Your leadership is judged in milliseconds

In my most recent articles I focused on the experience we have when leadership is lacking, and wrote about the need for more extraordinary leaders. I’d like to now turn my attention to the "how to" – how we can exercise more remarkable leadership.

If great leadership requires us to be good at engaging other people, understanding how our pre-programmed brain wiring influences engagement and followership is a perfect starting point. So, when it comes to engagement of other people, the most important fact a leader should know about the human brain is that it evolved to make rapid-fire assessments of other people around two critical characteristics:

  1. What can I discern about their intentions towards me?

  2. Do they appear to have the ability to carry out those intentions?

The answers to these assessments are generated in less than three tenths of a second. So quickly that we are not conscious of it happening. Nonetheless, this instinctive thinking dictates our subsequent responses, thoughts and feelings about the person and the type of relationship we are likely to form with them.

Warmth and strength

I call these two criteria warmth and strength. Warmth is concerned with another person’s trustworthiness and openness – do they appear to be someone whose intentions I can trust? Strength on the other hand is related to their agency and capability – are they competent and motivated enough to carry out those intentions?

To understand why these two assessments are deeply coded in our brains, simply imagine yourself as an early human living a hunter-gatherer existence. One day while out looking for food, you emerge from a forest into a clearing and see a stranger crouched over a freshly killed animal just a few metres away. As he turns his head towards you, your brain must make an extremely rapid assessment of this person and the situation. Are you now in danger? Or might there be some benefit in hanging out with this person for a bit?

If the stranger’s intentions appear cold or hostile towards you and he looks strong enough to harm you, you would probably experience a feeling of fear or danger and run. If, however, his intentions seem hostile, but he looks weaker and slower, you might think, 'I can take this dude, and the fresh meat, no worries'.

If, on the other hand, the stranger smiles warmly and you assume his intentions are good, you might consider moving closer and engaging with him, perhaps with the hope of trading something for the food and improving your situation. If especially strong and competent as well as well-intentioned, you may even decide some benefit exists for you and your tribe in attempting to establish a deeper social connection with this individual.

Because we are the offspring of generations that evolved this rapid assessment capability (and our brains have not really changed since the emergence of Homo sapiens around 300,000 years ago), perhaps unsurprisingly our brains still make the same powerful split-second judgements of other people.

What does this mean for leaders?

The answers to these judgements have enormous implications for our attitudes towards others and the relationships we are likely to have with them. This is especially true of our leaders. We are much more likely to follow and engage with a leader who is both warm and strong. That is, their intentions towards us seem to be good and they appear capable and competent.

How you show up in those first few moments with those you seek to lead has tremendous impact on their initial judgments of your worthiness to lead. Fail to show up with either warmth or strength and you may fail the leadership first impressions test. And unfortunately, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

You can read more about how you can show up in those first few moments as warm and strong in my new book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership. I’ll also be sharing more in the next few articles about the critical role that strength and warmth play in the exercise of more effective leadership.


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