Shattering the glass ceiling for female leaders: what lessons can we learn from Kamala Harris and her leadership style?

Kamala HarrisWorld-leading executive coaches Sheelagh McNamara and Lisa Akesson, who co-deliver the RADA Business Executive Presence for Women programme, explore how newly appointed Vice-President, Kamala Harris, demonstrates leadership using her body, breath and voice.

As newly-inaugurated Vice-President Kamala Harris begins her first term in office, the true significance of her appointment is being felt not only across the United States, but all around the world.

Her journey to the top has been watched by millions and the impact of her election is helping to further shatter the glass ceiling for female leaders and women in business everywhere.

With female leadership firmly under the spotlight, RADA Business tutors Sheelagh McNamara and Lisa Akesson point to what they call Kamala’s ‘executive presence,’ to describe how her authentic and empathic leadership and communication style has helped her progress.

What impact has Kamala’s leadership style had in terms of her election to Vice-President? Sheelagh and Lisa – who co-deliver the transformational Executive Presence for Women programme – take a closer look at Kamala’s presence and communication techniques, using their experience, perspective and insight to tell us more.

Executive presence

Communicating as a leader isn’t solely about what you say, it’s also about your ability to command a room and make your presence felt. This can often feel more difficult for female leaders, particularly those working in male-dominated industries.

As Lisa Akesson notes: “Kamala Harris has not only shattered the glass ceiling as the first Black and Asian woman to have become the Vice-President of the United States, but she also exudes what we call ‘executive presence’ through her empathic and authentic communication and leadership style.

Analysing the way Kamala delivers a speech, or the way she speaks when being interviewed, we see that she effortlessly communicates with confidence and gravitas and is not afraid to let her personality and feminine style shine through. Her dynamic persona, general warmth and contagious smile mean that she presents herself as a very approachable individual.

Kamala’s ‘executive presence’ also makes her both likeable and trustworthy, as she combines the resonant tone of her voice with a deeper pitch, meaning she is able to speak with authority whilst still exuding a calming presence.”

Credibility and relatability

Building trust is incredibly important, as a great leader should be both credible and consistent.

Sheelagh McNamara comments: “For some, it can be challenging to deliver powerful messages under the intense scrutiny of others, but Kamala appears to do this with a graceful ease. She is authentically herself, being alert and relaxed at the same time, and is clearly comfortable in her own skin – all traits which make her extremely a relatable and credible leader.

Audience members determine an instant impression about a speaker – likely in a fraction of a second after they speak – meaning they can very quickly form an opinion about the speaker’s credibility. This shows just how important those first few seconds of a speech can be. Kamala succeeds at this by owning her space, maintaining a strong and upright posture, with both feet firmly placed so she can evenly balance her weight. She uses a variety of gestures, including a modified steeple hand-clasp, which combined with her neutral expression, denotes power – for example, when she is signalling a lack of belief.”

Vocal and physical presence

Using body language to maintain a physical presence is another vital communication skill for women in leadership to master.

Expanding on Kamala Harris’ ability to own her space, Lisa observes: “Not only does Kamala root herself to the ground and stand tall to give her instant presence, she also uses a wide range of gestures that help to highlight her points and allow the message to land with the audience. She is not afraid of silence or using a pause when she speaks, showing she is a confident communicator and someone who has self-assurance and conviction.

Sheelagh agrees: “Gestures help bring a speech to life by giving energy to the voice and face. With someone who is animated and has a good vocal range, the audience will be naturally attracted to their technique of delivery. Kamala’s wide variety of tone, pace and pitch is what keeps us engaged so we listen to her every word.”

Demonstrating grace under pressure

Leaders often have to work in intense situations, which can lead to communication breakdowns if not handled well. Kamala Harris has never been seen to buckle under the pressure, frequently demonstrating another quality all good leaders should have – grace under pressure.

Sheelagh explains: “Kamala’s ability, and the finesse with which she dealt with Mike Pence’s interruptions during the Vice-Presidential debate last October, is a great credit to her skills as a leader and communicator. All she had to do was simply stop his repeated interruptions, with a gentle smile, direct eye-contact, a stop-palm position and the frequent repetition of her saying – ‘I’m speaking’.

This allowed her to assert her dominance, her right to speak and be heard; but she did so in a way that was non-confrontational while, again, owning her space through her physical presence.”

About RADA Business

RADA Business helps people at work become brilliant communicators. We build on the work of one of the world’s most respected drama schools to deliver world-class training programmes and coaching for organisations and individuals.

Everything we do is grounded in an understanding of business – and the varied needs of people within organisations. Whether you’re leading a company, managing teams or taking the first steps in your career, we can help you deliver your very best performance.

Since 2001 we’ve worked with some of the world’s best-known employers in more than 30 countries, including law firms, retailers, media companies, universities and governments.

We’re convinced that organisations work most effectively when everyone has a voice – and we’re committed to giving people the skills to get themselves heard.

All our profits support the activities of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, helping to develop the next generation of actors and technicians.

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