In today’s increasingly digital age, what we wear is more important to effective leadership than ever. Thirty years ago, the average person probably wouldn’t have recognized Michael Dell, 1989’s Inc. Entrepreneur of the Year, walking down the street. Today, however, with the rise of social media and an image-driven culture, it would be hard to miss Mark Zuckerberg in his signature hoodie, Kevin O’Leary in his pristine suit and tie, or Iris Apfel in her thick round glasses. More and more, I’m realizing that CEOs, entrepreneurs and thought leaders must understand the importance of being recognizable by their signature styles.
Last year, an article noted that successful people often wear the same thing every day. Steve Jobs was well-known for his turtlenecks and sneakers; Barack Obama wears only blue or gray suits; French fashion editor Carine Roitfeld wears pencil skirts and a blouse; shoe designer Manolo Blahnik sports a bow tie nearly every day. The article credits decision fatigue for these choices, but these “uniforms” have another effect, contributing to the allure that has turned these leaders into legends. Obama was arguably the first “celebrity” president since JFK (with Michelle Obama a celebrity and fashion icon in her own right), and CEOs and other thought leaders are now attaining a celebrity status that was once reserved for Hollywood’s elite.
Today, image is increasingly important to leadership, and authenticity — not perfection or luxury — is increasingly important to image. The age of the suit-and-tie executive is over. Clara Gaymard, the head of G.E. France, famously met with French President Francois Hollande in a leather biker jacket; the Patagonia vest has become a power symbol in its own right, and some executives are now spending over $1000 on high-end sneakers.
People are more willing to embrace leaders who are dressing down, as long as their style seems to reflect their personalities. In one experiment, subjects were asked to rank people’s leadership ability based on what they were wearing. The study found that those sporting suits and ties didn’t always rank highest. Instead, the study concluded, people tend to identify with leaders who look like they do. Those who favor jeans and t-shirts, for example, will rank a Mark Zuckerberg-type higher.
That trend is spilling over into the general workplace. According to one survey, over 60% of companies now allow business casual attire at the office. And after years in decline, jeans are making a comeback; when Levi Strauss’s IPO debuted in March, the stock priced significantly higher than anticipated.
Thought leaders don’t always need to wear clothing that reflects his or her self-image. Sometimes, as they say, clothes can make the man (or woman). While this sometimes involves formal dressing, one study found that formal dressing led to a greater feeling of power and proactiveness. “Dressing well” in today’s society does not always mean dressing up, but rather dressing in a way that induces confidence. Research has time and again found that clothing can boost self-esteem and confidence and can even be used to combat depression. Confidence, in turn, can make people more engaged and assertive. One study released earlier this year found that high-confidence leaders had more energy, were more willing to make bold changes and were rated as being more inspiring than low-confidence leaders.
Color, a critical element of fashion, has often been studied by psychologists. Red, for example, has long been considered a power color for women, black is associated with prestige, and darker shades of blue have a calming effect. But recently the intersection of psychology and fashion is becoming a respected field in its own right. According to the New York Times, F.I.T. now offers courses in psychology, students at The London College of Fashion can major in the psychology of fashion, and the University of Delaware offers a course called the Social Psychological Aspects of Clothing.
Clothing has long been associated with identity, a concept that is perhaps stronger today than ever. When a person puts on a piece of clothing, they are often wearing the emotions, ideas or identity attached to it. A study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that the symbolic meaning of clothing is often linked with the physical experience. In one experiment, “wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased [the subjects’] sustained attention, compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat …”
Thought leaders should not dismiss the importance of style in today’s workplace and culture. Dressing for thought leadership does not mean dressing expensively; it means dressing with purpose and authenticity. And rather than being a superficial decision, clothing decisions can help form self-image, establish identity and promote confidence.