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The Body Language of Leaders

Body Language of

Do you know an alpha?

Alpha: The alpha is the individual in the community with the highest rank.

We all know someone who has a natural magnetism. Someone who walks into a room and people look. Someone who speaks and people listen. Someone who was born to lead. Or maybe that someone is you?

Alphas are very important in our society. Every group needs a leader to take charge in a crisis, set the tone, call the shots and set the standards. Typically the alpha, or leader of a group is the most ____ in a group. If it’s on an athletic team, they are the most athletic. In business it can be the most senior person. In dating it can be the most attractive person.

Alphas have a very specific set of nonverbal behaviors that signify to others in the group and to the outside world that they are the top dog. Let’s test your knowledge of the body language of leaders:


Do you know the body language of a leader?

1. What do leaders do?

A: Smile more

B: Smile less

2. What do leaders do?

A: Interrupt

B: Don’t Interrupt

3. What do leaders do?

A. Hold Eye Contact More

B. Hold Eye Contact Less

4. What do leaders do?

A. Pace

B. Stand Still

5. What do leaders do?

A. Nod as you speak to them.

B. Hold their head still as you speak to them.

Answer Key:

1. Typically leaders smile less

Smiling is a subordinate behavior. Women smile more to please others and are therefore less often the alpha. If you are in a powerful room, smile purposefully.

2. Alphas interrupt

They speak and expect others to listen. Notice if a leader in your life interrupts you and then politely correct them with something like “I can’t get a word in with you!”

3. Trick question!

Alphas hold eye contact when they are speaking but look away when others speak to them. This is a very rude behavior and take note if you do this to others. If someone does it to you stop talking until they look back at you.

4. Leaders stand still

Leaders have less movement as they are observers, others move around them. People should try not to fidget, pace and hop if they want to be perceived as more powerful and in control.

5. Leaders keep their head very still

Nodding is a sign of submission. You can nod to show agreeableness but be aware of head bobbing!

Can your body language influence your power?

Amy Cuddy has argued that your nonverbal behavior not only affects others perception of how powerful you are, but it also changes your own feelings of confidence and power.

In her excellent TED Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” Cuddy briefly describes some high-power poses, but I would like to dig a little deeper into the body language and behavior of alphas.

Remember, an alpha is the individual in a community with the highest rank, most power or highest level of respect. Typically other community members exhibit deference towards the alpha and allow them preferential treatment or control.

Both male and female alphas have very specific body language and behavior. And, if you believe Cuddy’s prescription that behaving like an alpha will actually help you become an alpha, then you have to know exactly how to act.

Here is a deeper review of alphas high-power body language and some subtle ways to get started:

1. Steepling

Steepling is when someone brings their hands up towards their chest or face and presses the tips of their fingers together. This is a gesture of confidence, self-assuredness and even superiority. This can easily be done to inspire confidence in yourself and others during a meeting or interview. This is an easy one for female alphas in particular since it is seen as assertive, not aggressive. Steeple not for you? Here are 19 other hand gestures you can try!


2. Smile Less

Contrary to popular belief, smiling is actually seen as a sign of submission. Submissive people tend to smile more at alphas to show they are agreeable and non-threatening to their power. Alphas in turn (think Clint Eastwood) smile much less because their power is enough to put people in line. Females in particular need to be careful not to over smile as it puts them in a submissive position. Dr. Nancy Henley found that women smile in 87 percent of social encounters, while men only smile 67 percent of the time.

3. Hands Behind Your Back

Another high-power position that you often see politicians do is when they put their hands behind their back and grab one wrist. The reason this can be powerful is that it exposes the most vulnerable part of the body–the groin for men and chest area for women. Only a supremely confident person will place their hands behind their back in that way. You often see principals or teachers do this as they walk up and down rows of student’s desks during tests.

4. Top Handshake

Alphas know how to shake hands. Not only do they give a firm handshake, but they also try to be the dominant hand in the handshake. A high-power handshake is when the dominant person has their hand ‘on top’ of the clasp. The weaker person will often take the bottom part of the handshake by exposing the underside of their wrist–which is a physically weaker position. You often see politicians jockey for the dominant handshake position when meeting in front of cameras. Two equals usually just shake hands up and down, with no one on the top or bottom.

5. The Colors You Wear

Power and confidence are not only shown through body language but also through what you wear. The two most powerful colors are black and red. Black is the color of mystery and power, while red is the color of aggression, passion and violence. You often see politicians wear black suits with red ties. Occasionally you will also see blue ties, this is because blue is the color of wisdom, loyalty and honesty. You can also use color psychology to your advantage as an alpha and think carefully about which colors you wear to work.

As Cuddy explains, being alpha is both a mental and physical state. And your actions have greater effect than originally thought as they can both influence your own behavior and others’ perceptions of your behavior. Start practicing the above body language and behavior in addition to picking up on clues from other alphas in your life and you will begin to feel alpha yourself.

Want to learn even more on how to look and present yourself like a leader? Check out our book Captivate!

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All Rights Reserved + COPYRIGHT 2013 Science of People, LLC

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & lead investigator at her human behavior research lab, Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: Use Science to Succeed with People was chosen by Apple as one of the most anticipated books of 2017. She writes a monthly Science of Success column for Entrepreneur Magazine and the Huffington Post. As a professional people watcher her unique work has been featured in CNN, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Inc, Business Insider and more. Vanessa leads innovative soft skills trainings for Fortune 500 companies including Google, Dove, Facebook, Intel, MillerCoors and American Express.


  1. Ciaran Sloan

    Great article, Vanessa. I’ve watched a few videos on youtube about Alpha Male Behaviour and Body Language and I find it really interesting. I dont naturally display dominant signals or talk very loud but I’ve been experimenting with strangers by adopting Alpha Male gestures and poses and I can notice a difference to how I’m normally treated by strangers by my naturally friendly demeanour. I’m very interested in how leaders behave as I’m sure it has a lot to do with their success. Thanks Vanessa.

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hi Ciaran, thank you for your comment. It’s amazing to see the techniques come into play in our daily lives. Keep practicing and sharing your success! -Danielle and the Science of People Team

  2. Healy

    My teacher demands that I must make a PPT about bodylanguage from leaders with propriate pictures.I am puzzle with it.

  3. Shaquilla

    I also find myself smiling throughout the entire conversation, misty because my resting face actually is a light smile and I thought that smiling meant I was engaged in the conversation and interested in what they were saying, or just simply being polite.

    1. Rick Ramirez

      I believe it is, in regards to your comment on smiling. I am the same way, as well with those thoughts regarding “smiling” during conversations. The author is talking about being the leader, the Alpha, if you will. This is where I tend to disagree. I believe we can display leadership and an Alpha persona with smiling like how you discribe yourself. I have put it into practice and I saw attentiveness and respect from those I engaged conversation with.

  4. Robby Smith

    Great article on Leaders! I know a guy who likes to interrupt while speaking, so it is great advice to jokingly say “I just can’t get a word in”.

  5. Andrew

    Great video and article! It’s hard for me to wrap my head around not smiling as much though because I know that smiling more often can release chemicals in your body to be a happier person and people enjoy being around happy people

  6. Rob Williams

    Great article Vanessa! All these videos and and tips on the website are so useful. Your Udemy courses that I’m taking are so enlightening and changing drastically the way I work and engage with people!

  7. Bella Perennis

    Alphas interrupt?! How can that be? Is the alpha described here also a social alpha (a person who is so well liked and therefore has a lot of power)?

  8. Liam Hayes

    Do these alphas have lots of friends lol? I would agree on these rules though. I can think of many top politicians who behave just this.

  9. Lauren Freeman

    After reading this I realize that I show a lot of submissive nonverbal behaviors. Knowing how alphas carry and portray themselves can help me put myself in a position of more power and increase my influence.

  10. Drishti Narang

    I didn’t know about the smiling thing- but (with hindsight bias) it makes sense! I’m so surprised how easy it was to get some of the questions wrong. So the idea is to follow along and mimic what real leaders do in order to become one too? What if those cues they give off are the effect of reinforcement as they became a leader- in other words it is an outcome not a reason they are leaders?

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  12. Monica Levin

    In your video Body Language of Leaders you allude to all the CEOs that you are talking about being men. Why do you think women are less likely to be CEOs?

  13. Anna Saldi

    A very informative article – I guessed right about everything except interrupting, but it absolutely makes sense. It is also really interesting how natural-born alphas need advice on how to tame their behavior, whereas the less dominant seek advice on how to be more alpha. As always, the answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes!

  14. Dan

    Thanks for the tip what to do when someone is not looking at me or paying attention when I’m speaking. Stop talking. So simple, so elegant, love it!

  15. Karla

    I agree that leaders know how to give a good handshake and that they are observers. I feel like leaders look at everything and everyone and because of that they are good at recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each individual. I’m surprised that leaders interrupt since I would think they would listen to the perspective of others.

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