Kamala Harris: women's leadership in the spotlight
With the recent election of Kamala Harris to America's Vice-Presidency, women’s leadership is taking its rightful place under the spotlight.
At this historic moment, we asked Sheelagh McNamara and Lisa Akesson – two of our expert RADA Business tutors, who co-deliver our Executive Presence for Women programme – what exactly this appointment means for women's leadership.
As qualified executive coaches, Sheelagh and Lisa have decades worth of experience working with senior leaders. Here, they share their observations of the Vice-President-Elect, looking back at the particular leadership styles and techniques she has demonstrated over the past few months.
“Not only has Kamala Harris shattered the glass ceiling as the first Black and Asian woman to have become the Vice-President of the United States, she also has a communication and leadership style that is empathic, authentic and exudes what we call 'executive presence',” Lisa Akesson observes.
“When you observe her speaking, you can see that she is not afraid of allowing her personality and feminine style to merge with her confidence and gravitas. This conveys a dynamic persona. She has both warmth and a contagious smile that makes her approachable. This, combined with the deeper pitch and resonant tone of her voice, enables her to come across with a natural calm that is authoritative and credible.”
Relatability and credibility
Sheelagh McNamara agrees. "Kamala appears to have a rare ability to deliver powerful messages under intense scrutiny, with grace and gravitas. But perhaps more importantly, she comes across as relatable and authentically herself: she is alert, yet relaxed and comfortable in her own skin.
How do we know this?
When we are watching someone speaking, as audience members we are able to determine who is powerful, credible, likeable – or not – in a fraction of a second. Kamala succeeds in this because she owns the space. Her posture is upright and open across the chest, and her weight is evenly balanced on both feet. She uses a wide range of gestures including a modified steeple hand-clasp, which denotes power, and she combines this with a neutral expression – for example, when she is signalling a lack of belief."
Physical and vocal presence
When looking at the way Kamala Harris uses her body to demonstrate leadership, Lisa observes: “She stands tall and roots herself to the ground, which gives her instant presence. She uses a wide plane of gestures that powerfully highlight her points and help to land her message. Her pace is measured and she is not afraid to use silence and pause when she speaks, which communicates self-assurance, conviction and ease in a public arena.”
Sheelagh agrees. “Gesture gives energy to the voice and face. We are naturally attracted to people who are animated and have a good vocal range. As a voice coach I can guarantee that whatever is going on in your body is reflected in your voice. Think how quickly we tune out of monotone deliveries. Kamala’s wide variety of tone, pace and pitch keeps us engaged."
Demonstrating grace under pressure
In the weeks before the election, Kamala Harris demonstrated another quality all good leaders should have – grace under pressure. As Sheelagh explains:
"No-one will forget the way Kamala dealt with Mike Pence’s interruptions during the Vice-Presidential debate. She stopped his repeated interruptions with a smile, direct eye-contact, a stop-palm position and the frequent repetition of a very simple phrase:
'Mr Vice President, I’m speaking.'
But it’s not just the congruency of her body and voice that keep us tuned in it’s her ability as a storyteller. In her case, it’s the sharing of personal story which is relevant to the times we are living in. She demonstrates the importance of authenticity and living by your values."
Passion and authenticity
As Sheelagh reflects, Kamala's brand of leadership is particularly important for the possibilities it offers. She says:
"Overall, Kamala's ability to communicate using a wide range of facial expressions – squinting, the side-eye or raising her eyes in incredulity. Her warmth, her dignity and her laughter make her a natural role model for all women because when she rises we all rise!
We need women to be in power – not just empowered."
Perhaps most importantly of all, as Lisa says: "Kamala Harris speaks from her heart and with passion. Her message is fully aligned with her beliefs and is communicated congruently through her body, breath and voice.”
Executive Presence for Women
If you want to receive detailed, expert feedback on what is working well and what could be improved in your performance at work, check out our Executive Presence for Women: Virtual programme – delivered online.
Recent participants have called it:
- "Life changing”
Aimed at senior women who are working to break that glass ceiling, the course will lead you through a rigorous exploration and finessing of your performance and leadership skills.