David A. Thomas | Crain's Atlanta

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David A. Thomas


David A. Thomas begins his position Jan. 1, 2018, as president of Morehouse College, a historically black institution and the U.S.’s largest liberal arts college for men. He comes from Harvard Business School, where he is a professor of business administration. From 2011 to 2016, Thomas served as dean of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, where he led the redesign of the MBA curriculum, the launch of the school’s first online degree program and a $130 million capital campaign. Before that, he was a professor and administrator at Harvard University and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Thomas has researched leadership, organizational change and diversity and is the author of "Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America."

The Mistake:

When I was very early in my career, almost 30 years ago, I was a young professor at Harvard University. My area of research had to do with diversity and spoke to issues like race and gender dynamics in organizations. I would do a lot of training in executive education sessions with very senior managers.

The topics we talked about were oftentimes very difficult. The majority of people in these rooms tended to be white and male. Oftentimes, they didn’t seem happy to be in the room because these sessions were often required by their companies.

I used to go into the room and anticipate that they wouldn’t be happy to be there, and that affected how I led the sessions. One day, I was reading that your physical presentation, your non-verbals, could influence both how you felt and the energy people give you back. So I decided that for my education sessions, I would go into the room and be conscious of honing my body as if people were dying to hear what I said. When they asked questions, I assumed they just wanted more detail.

It changed the energy in the room, and these sessions started going very well. That also showed in the feedback I received.

Your physical presence is as important in leading a room as the script that you deliver.

The Lesson:

That experience taught me that, whether you’re a professor or a manager, your physical presence is as important in leading a room as the script that you deliver. That has influenced how I think about leadership development.

I’ve used that learning even in leadership roles when I’m sitting down for a difficult conversation with a direct report or someone I report to. I think that’s why people often cite that I’m able to have difficult conversations. Physical presentation also influences whether people are happy that they had the difficult conversation.

It’s a simple mental exercise to do this. Ask yourself how you would hone your body if you were confident that this conversation was going to go well. Literally, just sit there and practice it before the conversation.

Let’s say I have a conversation where I have to tell someone that they’re underperforming. When I go into the conversation, I’m confident that it’s going to go well. Maintain that posture, even though you’re talking about difficult things. When someone asks you a difficult question, ask yourself how would you hone your body if this question was being asked by your best friend.

People give a recipe for non-verbals that you should do, such as stand up straight and hold your body straight. But start with how you feel, not the recipe. You’ll realize that you’ll automatically do those things without the recipe.

Your body and your emotions are in a symbiotic relationship. You feel bad and you want to feel better? Change your body posture.

Follow David A. Thomas on Twitter at @ProfThomas.

Photo courtesy of Morehouse College

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email jfisher@crain.com

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Atlanta.