Dress Like a Leader

Dress like a leader

Dress like a leaderWant to do things your own way? Want others to “jump on board” with your ideas? Want to leave a legacy with your name on it?

Than dress like it.

It’s a requirement.

That’s what global talent agent Sylvia Ann Hewlett discovered after interviewing nearly 4,000 college-educated professionals for her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success. (2014)

While those interviewed said education and experience are certainly important, “star quality” plays a bigger role in who sits in the corner office. In fact, according to her findings, Hewlett found that executive presence consists of three factors:

  • How you act (gravitas)
  • How you speak (communication)
  • How you look (appearance)

So if you want to lead, you have to act, speak, and look like a leader.

This, of course, is not news to my long-time readers. I’ve been beating this drum for years, because I know – from first hand experience – precisely what it’s like to be both a wallflower and the star attraction. They’re distinctly different roles.

If you act, speak, and look like everyone else around you, you blend in with the crowd and become a wallflower.

But if you study great leaders and model yourself after them, you immediately set yourself apart from the crowd. Because they do things differently.

Remember how the Roman army – and later the British army – so easily conquered the world? Cutting-edge weapons and military prowess certainly played a part, but so did their uniforms. Because they were designed to intimidate.

Imagine you’re in a remote village somewhere, minding your own business, and these guys suddenly show up:

The Roman LegionThe Roman Legion
Photo courtesy of TheMasterofVerona.typepad.com

Or how about these?

The British ArmyThe British Army
Photo courtesy of Twcenter.net

Think you might get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? Think your life as you know it might suddenly be over? Just the sight of them – organized, precise, prepared – was enough to make people quake with fear and surrender without a shot or arrow ever being fired.

Now I’m not suggesting that you dress to intimidate – unless, of course, you’re going head-to-head with a competitor – because you want people to follow you willingly, not be scared to do business with you.

No, I showed you this to help you understand that to have great influence and get people to do what you want, you HAVE to prepare for it. It’s not willy-nilly. You have to think about the reaction you want, and then dress to elicit it.

Think of “dressing like a leader” as putting on a costume for your leadership role. “If all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” as Shakespeare wrote, then play like you’re in charge and costume yourself accordingly.

Here are the clothing elements required of a leader:

1. Dark Colors

Dark colors like black, blue, and brown – and neutral colors like beige and gray – tend to command more respect than light and bright colors. If you’re a woman working in a male industry, avoid wearing “girly” colors like pink, purple, and pastels when dealing with men.

2. Classic Styles

Simple, classic lines rate more favorably than fussy, complicated ones. Trendy clothes are frowned upon in just about every industry outside of fashion. If you keep it simple, you’ll command respect.

3. Firm Fabrics

Firm, tailored fabrics are associated with firm, commanding leaders. Opt for wool, cotton, linen, mohair – yes, all those troublesome fabrics that require extra care. Just another way to show you’re willing to do what others aren’t.

4. Simple Embellishments

Classic buttons, functioning zippers, usable pockets – everything you need but nothing you don’t. Don’t let trendy embellishments pull attention away from the main attraction: you.

5. Elegant Accessories

When you wear a standard leadership “uniform,” accessories are the easiest way to let your personality show through. You can get a little creative – interesting colors, textures, and shapes, for example – but do keep them simple and elegant so they don’t steal the show – or your message.

Gray suit with red accessories

Now many of my clients tell me this costume is “boring” – until they wear it. Because once people start paying attention to them and according them the proper respect, life gets interesting…and much more fun.

For once you get the image part of the executive presence equation handled:

  • How you act (gravitas)
  • How you speak (communication)
  • How you look (appearance)

The other two tend to fall into place. All the attention gives you confidence.  You walk taller, prouder. You act and speak with more thought and clarity because you know you have an audience. You tend to think things through and to see the “big picture.” And if you’ve prepared to lead correctly, you already have a message to share to sway people to your way of thinking.

“Leadership is influence,” says management expert John C. Maxwell.

If you want to have influence, dress like a leader. It’s the fastest way to get what you want.


Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Business Wear Magic. Ready to get the attention, respect, and income you deserve? Business Wear Magic can show you how.


  • Linh

    Reply Reply September 6, 2014

    Fantastic article! I already trend towards dark colors naturally so it’s good to know I’m doing something right. In the fall and winter I feel like I’m dress competent but in the spring and summer I feel like all the dark clothing looks really drab and out of place, even in my corporate DC office. I’m still working on incorporating some ‘lightness’ to my spring and summer work wardrobe but I’m just so clueless. I just prefer and am better at dressing for fall and winter weather. I definitely try to dress well at work, its important to me since I’m only a little over 5 feet tall and a woman. I’ll take all the help I can get with getting respect.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 7, 2014

      Hi Linh – thanks! Glad you enjoyed it! Dark colors are easier in cool weather; in warm weather, try wearing neutral colors with splashes of dark, like beige with brown accessories, white with a gray jacket, etc.

  • Maree

    Reply Reply September 7, 2014

    Great article Diana. I would love to see more example pictures of work clothing capsules. These are very helpful. Particularly when trying to create work clothes that are ‘for the role you would like’ but on a budget.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 8, 2014

      Hi Maree – glad you enjoyed it! I will try to work with more capsules in the future. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Jennifer

    Reply Reply September 9, 2014

    Diana, another excellent article with great advice. The only point I find tough is firm fabrics. The marketplace seems to be flooded with synthetics and not much else. Saying that, I was able to find a beautiful wool pant and skirt for winter (Banana Republic) and yet the coordinating jackets didn’t fit well at all whether they were misses or petite sizing. I’m still looking for a great jacket to pull everything together. Love the jacket in the clothing capsule included which is synthetic. Any ideas on finding firm fabric jackets? I, too, would love to see some work clothing capsules using the firm fabrics.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply September 12, 2014

      Hi Jennifer – glad you enjoyed the article! The easiest way to find jackets in firm fabrics is to go Amazon.com or Bizrate.com and do a search for jackets. You may be able to find a vendor with a store in your town where you can go try things on. Just a thought –

  • Rachel

    Reply Reply August 27, 2020

    How does the first image track with this? The woman is wearing a shirt, unbuttoned and gathered right between her breasts and has her arms folded under them and a tight vest that recalls a corset. This is purely for the male gaze and women with low-self esteem. Is that you?

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 28, 2020

      I disagree. The shirt is not unbuttoned in an immodest fashion, and the vest is fitted. The stance speaks to power, not seduction, IMO.

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