Have you heard about the “uncanny valley”? It has emerged as a new meme in robotics and animation. It refers to the situation in which the facial expression of the avatar is really good, but not quite so good as to look real so that viewers ultimately view it as weird, fake or even revolting. Just drop the term casually into your next conversation with a tech guy if you want to look like you are a native of the Valley
I once had a boss who was like that. Every time he smiled you knew that underneath it all, he actually wanted to kill you. It wasn’t just the facial expression. His body language gave him away so the overall effect was weird and fake.
Of course many or most leaders aren’t like that. On the other hand many are, although maybe the uncanny valley effect isn’t so pronounced. But it’s quite likely that many leaders suffer from this effect, especially when they are new. And it’s probable that many of them fail because of this, even though in many other ways they are good leaders. That’s because their colleagues, followers and partners see something out of whack, weird or strange, or just not quite right.
So if we want to add a new expression to leadership we can talk of uncanny valley leaders, ones who either look fake or just don’t look right. The reason is that there is a mismatch between the signals they are sending with the various parts of their body, including their face, postures, voice and actions. If we want to look even more sage, we can classify uncanny valley leadership as being the opposite of authentic leadership.
When you are a leader, your postures and facial expressions are especially important because they send signals to others. But it’s not just about signaling either. We now know through experiments in neuroscience and psychology that our body – through its postures and actions – actually impacts our thinking and plays a key part in it. That idea is called embodied cognition, it’s all the rage these days, and justifiably so. So it’s not just your brain that does the heavy lifting; your body does too, in thinking that is.
In fact, we now know that there is another effect going on in our body and limbs which also effects how we think, namely proprioception. This is our awareness of how the various parts of our body relate to each other physically and in space.
If we are really good at this we may be a great athlete or actor. Proprioception is part of everyone’s thinking process even though they are mostly not aware of it. Those who are very aware of it have high kinesthetic intelligence, such as sportspeople. The awareness of proprioception helps you communicate better with others. In other words, it helps you become a better leader. So better be aware of this next time you move your elbow.
We use this effect in our coaching programs in my company. We call it proprioceptive priming. It’s a way of using postures and body movement to prime your thinking to improve your leadership and to send out the right signals to your followers. So that you don’t inadvertently fall into the trap of the uncanny valley.
Proprioceptive priming is used especially by great actors and politicians. Ronald Reagan comes to mind but of course there are numerous others. Many of the greatest leaders are (usually unconsciously) using proprioceptive priming and leveraging embodied cognition in their leadership approach.
In other words, leadership isn’t just about saying and doing the right things, although of course it includes these. It is also about postures, facial expressions, how they link together, proprioceptive priming and ways of using our bodies and limbs to impact our thinking. Good leaders unconsciously leverage embodied cognition, although if asked about it, they probably wouldn’t know what you are talking about.
In our increasingly cerebral world, we tend to forget the importance of our bodies, as thinking tools. To become better leaders we have got to go way beyond conscious thinking, and even exercising (although that’s important too). The tools afforded us by embodied cognition and which are used by all the greatest leaders are a key part of the great leader’s toolkit too.