7 Ways To Lead Without Uttering A Single Word

There is much written about the words leaders need to use, both in speech and on paper, to be effective.   Words are certainly important, but there are  other, more subtle messages that leaders send every day through their actions (or inactions) in the workplace.

These messages can strongly reinforce your words,  or render them ineffective or meaningless.     Thus, every great leader needs to develop a strong self-awareness of their non-verbal communication, and use it consistently, so they can “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk“.

Here are seven of the best ways to lead without uttering (or writing) a single word:

  • Eye Contact – Nothing says “I’m paying attention to YOU” better than actually looking someone in the eye.   Looking at the floor, the wall, or worse yet, at your Blackberry, sends a message of disinterest, even if it’s totally unintentional.
  • An Open Door – Much has been said about the benefits of “an open-door policy“, but it’s one thing to talk about it, and another thing to actually keep your door open.   Better yet, why even have a door at all?
  • Smiles – You know the saying “a picture says a thousand words“?   If a leader is trying to project positivity, humility, graciousness, optimism, openness, and a general good nature, smiling whenever possible is a great place to start.
  • Posture – Body language can speak volumes. Slumped shoulders and rounded backs are never good ways to project authority and control  (hint: practice this in front of a mirror and you’ll see what I mean)
  • Handshakes & Back Pats – These “old style” gestures, when done with proper consideration of the particular sensitivities of the persons involved, can make a real difference.  For example.  I’ll always remember the bosses that would enter a room for a team meeting and shake every hand in the room before they started, or the ones who would give their encouragement or praise with a hand on my shoulder.
  • Arriving On Time – Consistent punctuality sends a strong structural message to the rest of the team – it’s a critical part of “leading by example“, especially when it comes to keeping all the trains running on time, and meeting deadlines.
  • Be a Wanderer (Simple Presence) – Doing things like walking the halls, getting your own coffee, making your own copies now and then, stopping by all the office birthday celebrations, or sitting in on a team meeting you were not required to attend are all ways to simply be “there“.   Frequently getting out of the office and into the field is another excellent habit, even if it’s a series of quick  “drop bys”.  Teammates will notice you made the effort.

Be conscious of these 7 things as you lead, and watch how your team responds.

(On a side note, this week , on October 5 and 6, I’ll be attending the World Business Forum In NYC as one of a great group of folks live-blogging the event – check out my blog later this week for my reports, and you can also monitor our real-time postings on Twitter by following the hashtag “#wbf10“.  Thanks!)


  1. says


    Love the list. Individuals who embrace these recommendations can’t help but have the positive, engaging aura others want to be around. On a personal note, arriving on time is the one item that I think too many people disregard.

  2. says

    Great list. But I have to answer the ‘why have a door?’ question. Yes, it is critical to have the door open. But I think it’s equally critical for the safety of your team if they know that the door can close:
    – when they need to speak to you confidentially
    – when they’re receiving hard feedback they wouldn’t want anyone else to hear

    You get the point (and I’ve no doubt you know all of this!!!…but you did ask the question!!!)

    Great point!

  3. says

    Thanks Shaun and Julie!

    Shaun, I don’t think it would surprise you that “being on time” is one of my biggest pet peeves in the workplace. 🙂

    Julie, can’t argue with your point about being able to speak to someone confidentially – privacy is essential. In my “door-less” society, I would find a way to have those discussions privately; in fact, sometimes I find it’s better to go “off site” or to a “neutral” conference room, because it can promote a more open discussion.

    All the best to you both!

  4. says

    Had to laugh at the first point of making eye contact. I used to wonder why so many people approached or talked to me on the bus or as I went about my day. It’s because of my eye contact! I’m generally looking around, looking at people; I’m curious and it gets me wondering! I also wonder about people who refuse to make eye contact, like what’s in the way, what’s stopping them. Gets me present to my compassion.

    The other point that totally rang a bell was arriving on time. Like you Terry, one of my pet peeves is punctuality. I used to make it mean whoever was late had no respect for me and my time. Now, I’ve realized it’s not about me at all and that makes it easier to address with them without the judgment!

    Great post; I’ll be back!

  5. says

    Awesome post, Terry!

    You know, it amazes me to see how many people we see not realize how easy these 7 key points are. The power of non-verbal communication never ceases to amaze me and I am glad that you posted this here. I am going to gladly share this with those around me. Thanks again.


  6. HR Ghost says

    For some reason I felt as if I had gone back in time 30, perhaps 40 years. It’s 2010, sneaking up on 2011 – I’m looking for a HECK of a lot more than eye contact and posture from my leader.

  7. says


    Great tips indeed. Your spot on. I’ve been in management roles since I was 25 and have learned a lot in that time–sometimes the hard way, sometimes from mentors, and often from observation and ideas from people like you. I think the one key way to lead without saying a word is to lead by example.

    The three most important tools I’ve learned to employ are:
    – Lead by example.
    If you want your team to show up to meetings on time and ready,then YOU show up on time (or early!) and prepared; if you want employees to be organized, then YOU be organized; if you want employees to be nice to one another, then YOU be nice to them, in public and private. Employees determine their attitude and actions more by following the example of their manager than they do by some dusty policy and procedure booklet given out by HR on the first day on the job.
    – The last word.
    This is probably the most challenging for most people, but YOU don’t always have to have the last word. Sometimes the conversation ends at the right point and your “contribution” at the end doesn’t help even if you feel you need to be the last one talking.
    – Listening.
    Employees quickly pick up whether their input is valued and managers would do well to spend more time listening to employees than talking AT them. I’ve been able to motivate employees much better by listening to their ideas, and even gripes, and genuinely assuring them that their voice is being heard, even if what they are saying is not interesting or in the end helpful.

  8. says

    Hi Sandi, Geoff, HR Ghost, and Lee, thanks for stopping by.

    Sandi, it is quite interesting how “unusual” direct eye contact can be these days. And like you, it took me a while to figure out the real motivations behind chronic tardiness.

    Geoff, thanks for the kind words, and by all means, please share!

    HR Ghost, yes, we should ask for a heck of a lot more. Much more. But my point is a leader can severely undermine all that “more” by sending contradictory non-verbal messages. I’ve seen it happen too many times. This stuff matters, however “slight” they may appear to be at first glance.

    Lee, your add-on points are spot-on. I especially appreciate your thoughts on the “last word”. Even after 30 years I’m still working on that one. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    All the best to all of you, and thanks again!

  9. Paul says

    The Open door advice is at best not complete. If your door is open as apposed to being closed all the time then thats a good thing. However, if employees constantly walk into the boss’ office that creates additional problems. Important issues that need to be addressed should be scheduled meetings.

  10. says

    Terry – I appreciate your tips. They get down to the basic idea that leaders set the tone. We want the tone to be a positive one so our workers want to stay and even more important, want to do an excellent job.

    Sadly, the number of people out of work right now dictates that managers can get away with setting a difficult tone at work because people are hard enough up for jobs that they are unwilling to leave. Of course, it still doesn’t help productivity any!

    Thanks for posting these tips!

  11. says

    Hi Paul and Fran, thanks for your comments!

    Paul, I agree that sometimes there needs to be privacy, but I believe, as I noted in one of my responses below, it can still be worked out, even with an “open door”. And yes, unwanted interruptions can happen. But you’d be surprised how easy that is to manage if you have built the kind of team who intuitively knows the right and wrong times to step into your office. If you have the wrong team, however…….

    Fran, you have it exactly right – it’s about setting a tone. And I think that using the economy to instill a culture of fear in the workplace is just plain wrong, and will certainly backfire in the end.

    Thanks again, and all the best!

  12. says

    I’m with Julie – a manager needs a door. I enjoyed this article, and agreed with every point except that one.

    Open door policies are also a double-edged sword if you have a noisy office that is full of interruptions and distractions, and important work that takes concentration. I once had to ask permission of an executive VP to be allowed to close my office door for such an occasion. I found this ridiculous.

    Likewise, the number of times I’ve had managers hold loud conferences in their offices, or converse on the speaker phone for hours with no concern or respect for their employees in cubicles is untold. I find this disrespect a lot harder to stomach over time than having to knock on a door.

    Doors are the best metaphor for human boundaries, and healthy boundaries are most important in a managing relationship. I believe doors should be well-oiled and often used – as appropriate. I agree, an open door “most of the time” is nice. But not all of the time.

  13. says

    Great post, Terry!

    While each of the practices mentioned are extremely valid points, I particularly resonate with your statement on posture. It is the first impression, conveyed even from a distance, and leaves a lasting mental imprint. Furthermore, healthy posture can subliminally overcome such formidable barriers as gender, race and ethnicity.

    Thank you for raising these primary skills as an issue. With virtual communication at the forefront, it can be easy to forget the weight physical presence can have on our personal communications.


  14. says

    I am familiar with a Fortune 100 company that doesn’t have offices at all. EVERYONE has a cubicle. At first, I didn’t get it. I thought it would be a difficult environment to work in. On the contrary, the openness of the architecture permeates the culture which is a beautiful thing. Loads of conference rooms provide the space for sensitive discussions. Terry…did you anticipate all this dialogue of physical doors?

  15. Billie Wright says

    I liked your article.
    I agree encouragement should be given. But like you said; it should be “done with proper consideration of the particular sensitivities of the persons involved”. A hand on the shoulder can be a sign of encouragement to some but to others it can be viewed quite differently.
    Thanks for the tips.

  16. cindy says

    For the most part a great list; however, being a teacher, just wanted to make sure you are aware of an necessary footnote to ‘Eye Contact.’ Many cultures are such that direct eye contact is thought to be rude, offensive, or not made for other reasons. In some cultures (Japanese for one example) it is important to limit eye contact. Food for thought …

  17. Antonio says

    Six of these tips apply out of the office, too. As a public policy attorney, I use these regularly with clients, colleagues and public officials in a nuanced way, depending on the location of the encounter..

  18. Muralidhar P. says

    Absolutely agree with them in toto. Well it’s alway’s nice to be nice with people and lead by some simple by effective practices as per the list.

  19. April Olsen says

    This list is pretty standard, written by someone that is not in management??? It is quite sad, but a pat on the back could be considered sexual harassment. Anyone reading this should not utilize that one. I have seen someone take a pat on the back/tap on the shoulder as being hit on!!! So, hand shakes are generally what is appropriate and respectful. As far as the getting on time thing, a lot of line supervisors ask why management doesn’t come in on time at our company and why they take such long breaks. For those of you at other companies that wonder the same thing: These people are at the office until the wee hours of the evening, i have had some members of management here even pull all nighters. So, if they are coming in at ten am instead of 8 sharp, or linger at lunch hours just a wee bit longer, it is because their hours are far different from yours. If you really knew what they did, you probably would embrace your 8-4 or 9-5 regular hours with glee!!! As someone that works directly with both upper and lower management, it is amazing what people think and how easily they are willing to judge without a complete understanding of what is really going on.

  20. says

    Great post. All of these are simple to do and very effective. Interesting to note that in a new group of people, or in an unfamiliar situation, we might do more of these things. But with our co-workers sometimes these things lapse due to familiarity.


  1. […] watch the body language and facial expressions (Terry Starbucker wrote a great post about this); they listen to the tone of voice; they observe the decisions the leader makes; they listen to the […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *