Leading in Blue Jeans: Dressing for Success in God’s Eyes
by Allison Baltzersen
How we define success and who we are seeking to impress dictates how we dress as a leader.
I recently attended a WLI event in which I was surrounded by other leaders from a variety of professions. I noticed quickly that they were dressed up. Like dry-clean-only suits and beige pumps dressed up. And as I sat there, I began to feel insecure about my wardrobe, my influence, my ability to lead.
You see, I hold an MBA and have managed a San Francisco law firm for the last nine years, growing it from a solo practice to a busy group of attorneys. I volunteer my time with Lutheran organizations, consulting on marketing teams to improve their online presence. On paper, I look like a leader. By email, I sound like a leader. But in person, I don’t look like a leader. When you meet me, you learn one quirk: I do all of this from my home on the East Coast where I homeschool my daughters, so I’m likely wearing blue jeans, t-shirt and sneakers at my laptop. I have no one in my home besides children to impress and I feel constricted in clothes I can’t bend in or fear staining. Since I’ve been telecommuting for years now, my wardrobe has devolved into a capsule wardrobe of faded machine washables. And for the most part, this doesn’t bother me. That is, until I meet other leaders who dress “the part.”
I clearly perceived these well-dressed women at the WLI event as LEADERS. Their presence commanded the room. I looked down at my shoes and wondered if they thought the same of me. Are they more of a leader than I am simply because of how they are dressed? Maybe the pumps do matter. Our society seems to suggest as much.
The motivational speaker Brian Tracy famously said, “Dress for success. Image is very important. People judge you by the way you look on the outside.” But how we define success and who we are seeking to impress dictates how we dress for it.
1. Define Your Success
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. – 1 Corinthians 12:5-6
I realize now that I felt self-conscious around those other leaders at the WLI event because I failed to recognize that not all leaders need to dress to command a room and not all leaders define success the same way. We are all leaders, but we have been called to serve in a wide variety of roles and professions (1 Peter 4:10-11). Each profession defines success differently and dictates wardrobe decorum differently. A college professor may define success as becoming Dean, or a young lawyer may define success as becoming managing partner. In the professions of academia and law, success requires dressing up in a way that projects authority to impress others. And there is plenty of evidence proving it works.
Recent studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and Social Psychological have shown that dressing up boosts the wearer’s perceived power, giving them confidence to negotiate more effectively and think more abstractly.
But what if you work in a profession like early childhood education in which a sophisticated wardrobe can actually hinder success? Stylists warn about dressing up to the point of intimidating others. Toddlers seek teachers that are approachable, not starched. So, are preschool teachers unable to effectively lead because they can’t dress up in the same way a lawyer or executive does? Obviously not. The “part” they dress for is their classroom, not a boardroom. So obviously clothing, in itself, does not make a leader. But we still need to wear something. How do we know what outfit is best for our leadership style and position?
When we choose clothing, we’re thinking about form and function. Form being the shape, comfort and capability of the pieces, and function being the intended purpose of the outfit. We try an outfit on and approve of the form: it looks flattering, slims the waist, lengthens the leg. But what about that function: Why do we like the look of the outfit? Is the intent to impress others? And if so, who? Who is our judge?
2. Identify Your Judge
Do not look on his [Saul’s] appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. – 1 Samuel 16:7
In 1 Samuel, we learn that Saul had a handsome physique and wore royal clothes, which by societal standards should have made him a logical candidate for the position of power. He was dressed for success. But God wasn’t looking for those characteristics in the next leader of Israel. Instead God chose little David, because of his heart, not his wardrobe. So, when Brian Tracy says people judge you by the way you look on the outside, he’s completely right. People do. But people aren’t the judge we should be impressing. God is, and he’s not looking at our shoes.
Dress in a way that gives you confidence to fully command your role in whatever profession you work. But be wary of dressing up with the sole intent to impress people around you because, while they may judge you, they don’t control your destiny. Proverbs 31:30 advises, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Our physical beauty and attractive wardrobe may carry us a distance on this Earth, but they are not the lasting qualities that matter most. God knows exactly what role we are going to fulfill to his glory, and He knows how high up that professional ladder we will climb. We can certainly wear pretty clothes that impress our coworkers and boss, but our wardrobe can’t guarantee that next promotion.
My coworkers can’t see me when I work from home, so I dress in clothes that feel comfortable and unrestrictive to me, to both work on my laptop and engage with my young daughters who do see me every day. Blue jeans and sneakers have become my style, and they have been serving me well in the unique leadership opportunities God has put before me. I do not need to compare myself to other leaders because they are dressing in their style for their unique leadership opportunities. How does your unique style serve you as a leader?
3. Define Your Own Style
Some women prefer wearing pumps, others sandals, and yet others, sneakers. God doesn’t care which pair you wear. Define your own style based on what makes you feel comfortable, confident and capable for the tasks before you. John the Baptist felt most comfortable, confident and capable wearing camel furs during his ministry. That was his thing. If you are an executive engaging with other professionals and feel most capable in a suit, wear the suit. That is your thing. And, if you are like me and work from home and feel capable to tackle life in blue jeans, wear the jeans.
But as you dress in whatever comfortable, confident, capable outfit you choose, take Ephesians 6:10-18 to heart:
Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. – Ephesians 6:10-18
Our Earthly wardrobe will one day be eaten by moths, but the full armor of God will endure eternally and it looks good on everyone.
Allison Baltzersen serves on the WLI Marketing and Communications work team as the social media and online presence coordinator.