There is much to say on the topic of leading your direct reports.

Not only are typical leadership concepts at play, you are shaping future leaders, whether you intend to or not.

Direct reports will learn values, practices, and interpersonal scripts. They will also pick up on subtle things, including choice of words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.

When you are in a position of power and authority over someone else, the interpretation and impact of what you say and do is magnified.

It is important to realize that what your direct reports may interpret, from your meaning and intent, may not be accurate.


You should be careful in how you lead because you are shaping future leaders.

You need to understand how you come across much more than you think. This is an area difficult to master by a paint-by-the-numbers program.

Success will depend on how closely you pay attention and how deeply you introspect, and also the repeated practice of doing so.

This leads to the next discussion, which is about context.

Effective Leadership

Context is the environment and culture of the mission within which you are leading. To be the most effective leader, matching style to context is important.

To illustrate, I’ll tell a story about Major Butch, who is an intense soul with personality features that hide the fact he is a remarkable military officer.

In his boot-in-your-rear leadership style, he fails to recognize the harshness of his style is adversely impacting the mission because of its incompatibility with the mission context.

Major Butch came from a different branch of service with combat having a more dominant role. In a direct combat mission, leaders are often harsh because of the potentially deadly nature of the mission.

In order to achieve the mission and survive, leaders may need to micromanage performance. War fighters know this, and so they trust their leaders.

Such a leadership style may be effective for combat situations, but is rarely effective elsewhere.

Leadership Style

The mission Major Butch is responsible for is a support mission, not a combat mission. If it would ever involve direct combat, the job would switch to survival.

This is why the operational doctrine of this particular branch of service grants increasing autonomy, delegation, and trust into the rising ranks.

Superior support requires superior productivity. Superior productivity depends on empowerment, morale, and extensive training.

In short, all trained members who are trusted as capable professionals commensurate with their rank and training. This is why their training program is among the most detailed and comprehensive in the world.

If Major Butch’s leadership style is incompatible with the mission context, it can impair the performance of his troops, and thus mission capability. It creates an uncertain context.

In response, the brain switches to learning mode. Consequently, some or all job competence automatic in the usual context may become inaccessible in the new and uncertain context.

Major Butch’s Body Language

We all have heard about body language, but how many of us have really tried to do more than just acknowledge body language exists?

Is it intuitive or natural to ask ourselves what our body language conveys? Probably not, but it would do well for our leadership effectiveness to ask.

Contrary to popular thinking, body language doesn’t always convey one’s true intent or internal state. In reality, interpretation of body language is the central theme to be concerned with. This is crucially important to realize.

In the case of Major Butch, when he communicates, he is more animated than others.

This will likely be interpreted as something to be concerned with, and our brains will automatically try to conclude what the Major’s internal state and intent is:

  • Does he think we’re stupid?
  • Is he angry?
  • Is he a jerk?
  • Is he arrogant?
  • Does he think he’s God?

We do this because our brains are wired to interpret anomalous behavior as an indicator of an uncertain context, and uncertainty can bring threat.


Facial features on their own can convey meaning.

For instance, if your eyebrows look like a frown, even though you are not frowning, it won’t matter to the brains of others, which may automatically interpret a frown.

Next may come the conclusion that you are in a mood associated with frowning (like angry). Even if they realize you are not frowning, they may still not trust you or like you as much as others.

To illustrate my point, bring up a web browser and Google “frown eyebrows” images and look at the eyebrows. If your eyebrows naturally look similar to the image results when you are not frowning, it could explain why others exhibit unusual behavior toward you.

Next, Google the phrase “evil face”, look at the images, and look at the eyebrows on those images. Maybe you’re not angry, but rather evil? This may sound absurd to the conscious mind. But it is normal for the sort of low-level brain processing usually at play.

Super Computing

Deep within our brain is a super computing structure known as the amygdala. It is designed to detect subtle patterns such as color, facial features and movement.

Follow-on brain processing then attempts to discern mood and potential threat. Our tendency to prefer those most like us is powered by the amygdala and subsequent processing.

So when our behavior becomes more animated than others, it may be perceived as threatening. If our eyebrows naturally look like we are frowning, that may too invoke the perception of threat.

Major Butch exhibits both abnormally animated behavior and eyebrows that often look like they are frowning. The two features can interplay within the amygdala’s detection and enhance the perception of threat.

When choice of words, voice tone, and overall style are harsh or even intense, all such features work together to magnify a threat-related interpretation. This will have an adverse impact on the mission.

It is important to understand how you come across and are interpreted. But you must first admit that the responsibility to manage how your leaders interpret you rests on you. Then you must be willing to change.

What are Soft Leadership Skills?

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.