I am in numerous conversations with friends and clients where the topic under discussion is the perception formed of them by people. In many cases, the person is not happy with this perception because he/she knows that he or she is brilliant in what he or she does and feels strongly that he or she is not recognised as such, and is therefore ignored. After a few questions and observations, the answer to his or her frustration is clear: the wrong perception formed of him or her is significantly influenced by the wrong image that he or she communicates. Whether we agree with it or not, it is clear from programmes on CNN to articles in TIME and the Harvard Business Review that those that are recognised, promoted and elected in business are the best communicators of their image. Sadly, the great thinkers that are probably better at getting the job done are not necessarily given the recognition and certainly don’t receive the reward they deserve.

Phil Willburn conducted a research study at the Centre of Creative Leadership on 150 CEOs’ leadership image. The study showed that the image these leaders communicated had a significant correlation to the perceptions of their leadership skills in the eyes of their employees, customers and others. The CEOs that communicated a strong vision were rated higher on several important leadership skills than those that communicated a weaker vision. It was clear from the study that the leaders who communicated their vision in a strong and positive way were seen as stronger in areas such as the ability to lead change, being dynamic, competence in strategic planning, being far-sighted, inspiring commitment, being original and having a strong executive image.

Many people assume that image is superficial and therefore unimportant because they view image as being based on only external aspects of a person, such as physical appearance and formal status. This point of view is wrong. Our image is based on the holistic impression we make on others. This holistic impression consists of both foundational image and our projected image.

Our projected image is communicated through our visual image (appearance, body language and behaviour) and our verbal image (content of our message, our vocal tone and pitch, our speaking style, our writing style). Our foundational image is communicated through our moral intelligence, our character, identity, emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence.

Robert Cooper, an executive consultant, explains that our presence is a silent sphere of energy that emanates from not only our visual image and our verbal image. Our presence also emanates from our hearts – which communicates, moment by moment, the emotional truth of deep down who we really are, and what we stand for, care about and believe.

Many people draw back from the idea of managing their image, thinking that it is irrelevant or even dishonest and manipulative. The reason for this thinking process is because of misperceptions that leaders have about managing their image.

Managing your image has nothing to do with choosing a new false image to put on and replace your old image. The idea is to recognise genuine aspects of yourself that you want to come across to other people — but possibly aren’t conveying.

Developing your image should not be an incredibly complicated process. Often, gaining the awareness of your current image and its limits goes a long way. We invest in our careers in many ways: education and training, experience, networking and goal setting. Don’t let a negative or poor image limit or sabotage your leadership potential. Just as you pay attention to developing the technical expertise and interpersonal skills needed to be successful in your job, you should develop your image in a way that serves you as a leader.

So where do you start? I believe that crafting your image requires a four step action learning process. I say ‘action learning’ because we only learn from our actions.

The first action is to gain a clear picture of the image people have of you. It isn’t easy to see ourselves the way others see us. But a clear-eyed look at the image others have of you is essential for understanding to what extent your image is helping or hindering your effectiveness.

After gaining a clear picture of the image people have of you, the second step is that you need to decide on a plan of what image you would like to project. To achieve your desired image, you can use a leadership image coach.

Now that you have a plan of the image you want to project, the third step is applying the skill and practice to project what you intend to be your authentic image. Many leaders work hard to get to the point that their authentic image looks easy. It takes skill and practice to be comfortable in your leadership role and to have the image to match. Even Winston Churchill apparently had to practise and work on his image. The story goes that Churchill’s valet overheard him talking while taking a bath and was concerned. The valet knocked and said, “Sir, to whom are you speaking? Is everything all right?” Churchill replied, “I am addressing the House of Commons!”

The fourth and final action step is important – you have to reflect on and review your image on a regular basis to ensure that your image is authentic and adding value to people with whom you interact. Your image affects the performance of the people around you, especially the people you lead. If you come across as a person that is productive, optimistic, thorough and fair, these characteristics will be seen as desirable among the people you lead.

Adel du Plessis CA(SA), is an Executive Image Consultant, and completed a Masters Degree in Accounting Education with a specific focus on assessment. For the past five years Adel has worked with the emerging generation market and trains, coaches, mentors and consults in Leadership Image, Business Skills and Life Skills.