Having right look helps certain leaders reach the top

19 January 2015

Leaders in certain fields are being selected in part because their face fits the stereotype of their profession, suggests new research.

In a series of experiments designed to find out how well people could place which industry leaders worked in from their face alone, participants could successfully categorise the leaders in business, sport and the military but found politicians difficult.

The study used unknown faces from the US on UK participants, and Dawn Eubanks, of Warwick Business School, argues that this simple judgement could heavily influence the actual leadership selection process by organisations.

Dr Eubanks, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science and Strategy, said: “Our findings imply that within business, military and sport individuals who achieve the highest positions of leadership share common facial features that distinguish them from leaders in other domains.

“The most plausible explanation, in our view, is that leaders are being selected, at least partly, according to how they look.

“The research suggests the ideal face of a leader extends beyond fitting the correct ‘type’ but needs to fit the industry or profession as well. That is, leaders may benefit not just from having competent or attractive looking faces, but also from having facial features that ‘fit’ a certain stereotype uniquely associated with their particular domain.

“In fact, just having facial features that make one look like a good generic leader might not be sufficient to reach the most prestigious leadership positions in a domain; one may also need to possess facial features that stereotypically ‘fit’ the leaders in that domain.

“These findings are particularly noteworthy for those involved in leadership selection decisions. It is important to not let implicit biases get in the way and ensure that there is a rigorous selection process in place.”

For the paper, The many (distinctive) faces of leadership: Inferring leadership domain from facial appearance published in Leadership Quarterly, researchers Christopher Olivola, of Carnegie Mellon University, Dr Eubanks, of Warwick Business School, and Jeffrey Lovelace, of Pennsylvania State University, presented individuals with black and white photos of two leaders in several sequences. For example they may have been shown a politician and a CEO and then asked to select the CEO.

These images only showed the cut-out face of each individual – no hair – in order to reduce cues that might give away the domain that a leader worked in.

In total, 325 US CEOs, 64 US army generals, 66 state governors elected between 1996 and 2006 and 43 American football coaches were used. Highly recognisable individuals were removed from the sample. The 614 British-based respondents were also asked to rate their confidence in their answers.

Dr Eubanks added: “Despite a pessimistic outlook from participants on their estimations, we found the mean accuracy levels significantly exceeded chance for most leadership categories.

“The fact that participants were able to categorise these leaders despite not recognising their faces and that these leaders were drawn from another country is noteworthy. It suggests that facial stereotypes about business, military and sport leaders may cross national and cultural borders.

“Interestingly, these same participants were not able to categorise political leaders, which suggests politicians may not have unique, distinguishable facial features that reveal their leadership domain.”

In order to identify if there might be specific facial characteristics representative of leaders from these industries, a new set of 929 participants were asked to rate 80 of the leaders’ faces on 15 basic dimensions, such as trustworthiness and likeability.

Dr Eubanks said: “Our results indicate that one might be able to distinguish military and sports leaders from business and political leaders by evaluating how warm and attractive they look from their faces, since military and sports leaders were evaluated as looking less attractive and warm than the latter two.

“Stereotypical looking business leaders were evaluated as having particularly competent faces and military leaders were identified as having more masculine and mature faces than the other types of leaders.”

Dr Dawn Eubanks teaches Leading for Innovation on the Warwick Executive MBA and  the suite of MSc Business courses. She also teaches Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on the Warwick Executive MBA. On Warwick Business School's Undergraduate courses Dr Eubanks teaches Leadership, and Acquiring Research Skills.

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