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  • Writer's pictureHannah E Greenwood

Judging a Book by its Cover

In a recent Perspectives Post, I talked about Charisma and why it’s so core to Leadership Presence:

‘We can have great passion and integrity but if we keep these qualities hidden and don’t learn how to show and communicate them successfully, they remain buried, and we are trapped in good but ineffective intentions. This is where Charisma comes in. Charisma is not…indeed should not… be about ego. It is about touching people’s hearts and minds. It’s ultimately about putting people at their ease and having a great and positive impact: lulling lions and wild beasts so they melt and are with you!

It’s easy to do this inauthentically, the ‘used car salesperson syndrome’. It’s much more complex but with infinitely greater and far-reaching impact to do this when charisma is embedded in integrity. This moves from a forced, in your face seduction to a deep magnetism based on trust and reputation. And this is how we truly win hearts and minds. Charisma: your inspirational presence

In a discussion on this theme of charisma and personal presence, one of my clients asked if it matters what we look like. Surely who we are and what we do should be enough. Like me, she came from a culture and family that actively mistrusted charisma. It was perceived as ego driven and lacking in humility: at best superficial and lightweight, at worst the tool of the arrogant for personal gain via conscious manipulation. And, as an extension of this thinking, any focus on external appearance and how we present to the world was regarded as pure vanity: i.e., the cover of a book is irrelevant, it is only the content that has weight and worth.

This discussion got me delving deeper into the journey of my attitude/relationship with my own external appearance. I remember an incident, as a teenager, when a boyfriend told me I was beautiful and…to my horror… I punched him. Not hard, but still. It was an instinctive knee-jerk response that didn’t make any sense. Why would I react so viscerally to such a compliment? In hindsight I know why. I was the only girl in my family…both the immediate and also wider family... and the messages I had unconsciously absorbed growing up about women were that we could either be intelligent or beautiful… but not both. And, given the emphasis on the intellect and education in my family, this was never a real choice. So, when my boyfriend told me I was beautiful, I punched him because I unconsciously heard him call me stupid. Shocking but true.

It changed to some extent when I went to university. I found many highly intelligent, enlightened women who were simultaneously embracing their beauty. It was liberating and joyous and I began to embrace the colour and fun of being a woman. But I…and they… still held many self-limiting injunctions about how an intelligent woman ‘should’ look. (an ‘injunction’ is a psychological term for internalised parental messages, the ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘ought’ beliefs that we hold about how things supposedly are.) It was ok to look cool, pretty, elegant, etc. enough…but not too much so. And definitely not too sexy, nothing that celebrated or showed my femaleness too much.

There was another reason why, from an early age, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself in how I looked: it brought unwanted and sometimes dangerous attention from others. I unconsciously played it safe and diminished the femaleness of ‘me’. Maybe that’s why I hooked into the ‘bright or beautiful’ injunction so easily?

In my joining the dots backwards exploration, I’ve realised that all my life I’ve been judged/told how to look…I must not look too ‘this’ but look more like ‘that’…in a way that the men in my life have never been judged. I also do this to myself and to others too. In my Personal Impact teaching, I coach how to look ‘right’ as a successful leader and I know I am more exacting of the women than of the men.

And then, a few days ago, I saw the movie, Barbie. Oppenheimer and Barbie came out on the same day, and, in line with my early injunction, of course I saw Oppenheimer first. This was going to be the serious, intellectual, politically important film, Barbie would be the fun and frivolous afterthought. How wrong I was!

In last month’s Perspectives Post I asked: ‘What are stories? Why do children love them so much? And why is the art of storytelling so crucial for leaders? Stories are about meaning, purpose and… crucially…hope. The best stories show us how to overcome adversity and bring the promise of a different and better future. They also invite us to view our life and current situation in perspective, to lift our heads up from the quagmire, and to breathe, feel and think differently.’

This story of Barbie did exactly that: it turned my thinking upside down. I had resisted seeing it because of my prejudices and assumptions and, my goodness, they were challenged and blown away!

Ultimately the director, Greta Gerwig, gets us to think: to have our prejudices turned upside down and to think openly. Even the protagonist Barbie has to think differently. She has her world, beliefs and assumptions challenged as much as the audience does.

The movie is super smart, and the marketing strategy has been brilliantly astute. The trailer portrays an unquestioning, nostalgic accolade to Barbie with lots of humour and fizzy, girly fun. It entices in a mainstream, predominately female, audience and then presents us with a highly evolved feminist polemic of so much that’s wrong in our world around women… and for men too …without losing the gorgeous humour and fun. I am in awe. Greta Gerwig has made a funny and heart-warming film that’s also brilliantly educational. It’s a masterclass in how to enlighten and entertain.

So where am I now in relation to external appearance and the image we show to the world? Here are my current thoughts:

  • It has to be our own choice without responding to any pressure from others’ expectations.

  • We need to be very mindful not to prejudge or dismiss others, to be open to their own exploration and to support this.

  • Our external mirrors our internal, so the more we connect to our authentic Self and love and respect ourself, the more we can play and delight in how we manifest our true Self externally. At its best it’s a joyous symbiotic expression of our inner and outer worlds.

  • Our external appearance will inevitably evolve as we open ourselves up to different life experiences and, in turn, we will access hitherto untapped aspects of ourselves. And it is only when we give ourselves permission to expand our horizons and ourselves, that the real magical adventures can begin!

Hannah Elizabeth Greenwood


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