Does having the right look help you become a leader?

19 January 2015

  • Having the right look helps business, military and sports leaders' career
  • Tests show people can pick out leaders just on seeing their face
  • It works with military, business and sports leaders, but not politcians
  • Study shows the unconcsious bias we have for leaders having the right look

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

In a series of experiments designed to find out how well people could place which industry leaders worked in just 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 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.

Does image matter for a career in business?

“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 and Jeffrey Lovelace, of Pennsylvania State University, presented individuals with black and white photos of two leaders in several sequences. 

Take your pick: Which is the military leaders' face?

In the example pictured above, participants were asked to pick the face of the military general - it is the one on the right. People were accurate 59 per cent of the time picking the military leader out. The rest of the results can be seen in the table below.

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.

Do you need the right look to reach the top?

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.”

If the face fits: The average accuracy of picking the right leader's face in each pair (B= Business leader; P= Political leader; S= Sports leader; M=Military leader). The grey dotted line is chance-level performance.

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.”


Dawn Eubanks teaches Leading for Innovation on the Executive MBA and Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on the Executive MBA (London).

Follow Dawn Eubanks on Twitter @DrDawnEubanks

For more articles like this download Core magazine here.

Join the conversation

WBS on social media