Nonverbal Behavior and Political Leadership
George R. Goethals
Historian Shelby Foote describes the way a military leader's nonverbal behavior, in a particular instance, was misconstrued. During the Civil War, a Union general checked into the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. He struck an observer as having "no gait, no station, no manner." Rather, his aspect of "rough, light-brown whiskers, a blue eye, and rather scrubby look withal ... as if he was out of office and on half pay" suggested someone who need not be taken seriously. The desk clerk assumed a superior air. When the general wrote his name in the register, "U.S. Grant ... Galena, Illinois," things changed fast. The clerk rang the bell loudly, and the observer took a new look. On second glance, he "perceived that there was more to him than had been apparent before .... The 'blue eye' became a 'clear blue eye,' and the once stolid-seeming face took on 'a look of resolution, as if he could not be trifled with.' " (Foote, 1963, pp. 3-4).
People's impressions of Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, or any leader at any time, are based on several kinds of information, including appearance, nonverbal behavior, and context. Leaders most often speak or write, but their words are often qualified by their nonverbal behavior, and their verbal and nonverbal behavior together are interpreted quite differently depending on contextual information. This chapter considers the role of nonverbal behavior in political leadership. Obviously, nonverbal behavior does not exist in a vacuum. It combines with words to help create an overall impression or reaction. These impressions and reactions are key elements in leading and following.
We will review briefly some basic theoretical formulations about the role of nonverbal behavior in communicating information about relationships, examine anecdotally the role of nonverbal behavior in influ