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Can Your Face Predict Leadership Success?

Good-looking people have some advantages, but perhaps not as much as we think.

Can Your Face Predict Leadership Success?
[Photo: Flickr user Ashley Campbell]

Researchers have long looked at the relationship between looks and leadership success.

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A 2011 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that male CEOs who have wider faces achieve better financial performance in their companies. In the October 2014 issue of The Leadership Quarterly, a paper by University of Munich economics professor Panu Poutvaara found that being attractive can help sway election results your way. A December 2013 study published in the journal PLOS One even found that faces that were perceived to belong to taller people were deemed more capable as leaders.

Of course, good looks without leadership ability aren’t going to get anyone very far. But while many of us would be loathe to admit that we ever picked a candidate or other leader based on looks, Poutvaara, who is also director of the Ifo Center for International Institutional Comparisons and Migration Research, says the research indicates that we tend to give the benefit of the doubt to good-looking people, which may give them an edge in the leadership arena.

“I think it is hard-wired,” he says. “Good looks also seem to help in [facilitating] more successful communication.”

The Eye Of The Beholder

What makes someone’s face attractive? Poutvaara says symmetry is important, and also perceived as an indicator of good health. A July 2014 study from Princeton University found that large eyes are also important. People perceive differences–the spacing of eyes, the breadth of shoulders–as small as one-quarter of an inch, says image consultant Judith Rasband, founder of Conselle Institute of Image Management, which works with individual and corporate clients to improve individuals’ leadership presence and image. She holds a master’s degree in the artistic, social, and psychological aspects of dress and image.

Still, it’s not like anyone can point to the best combinations of features and other attributes to ensure success for someone in a leadership role. And, when it comes to research, even some of the most well-known has been misunderstood and misconstrued, Rasband says. She points to research by Albert Mehrabian, who is now professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. His 1981 paper, “Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes,” is widely cited as having found that 93% of communication is related to your appearance and the tone of your voice, or similar interpretations.

In reality, Mehrabian’s findings were somewhat different and much narrower, Rasband says. His study was related to the expression of feelings, where tone of voice and facial expression are very important indicators in how someone is feeling. The wide misquoting of his findings–which is collectively called the Mehrabian Myth–includes everything from dress to body language as influencers more than our words. Such interpretations make it seem like the study’s findings were more about looks, when that really wasn’t the case.

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Looking At Looks

While there is a body of evidence that suggests good-looking people have some advantages, Rasband advises not getting too wrapped up in those findings, especially if you’re not among the genetically gifted. People will judge you on your looks, but she says developing leadership presence – an engaging manner, great posture, warm smile, firm handshake, and neat, professional appearance, among other attributes – goes further toward helping you inspire confidence in your ability. How you dress, carry yourself and communicate will all shape people’s perceptions of you as a leader.

“Absolutely, the appearance matters, (however), on the subsequent meetings everything that individual does (needs to) reinforce the positive first impression,” she says.

Poutvaara also says that researching the impact of how facial features affect others’ perceptions about people is important for building awareness about these tendencies. For example, he says his research about facial features and elections contributes to our basic understanding of how a democracy works.

“It’s helpful to voters. If people are aware of this tendency, they can take it into account. They may think about the stereotypes they may be using and may be less likely to use it because they’ll think, ‘Am I being influenced by the looks or is my decision based on substance?’” he says.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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