October 22, 2018

Do you have the face of a leader? Research correlates CEOs’ facial appearance with financial performance

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Attempts to identify and predict human behaviours based on physical traits have been made since at least the eighteenth century. The pseudoscience of phrenology developed charts that supposedly assessed intelligence and certain personality characteristics from the shape of the skull. Upon his death, Einstein’s brain was to suffer the ignominious fate of being sliced up and shared among various researchers hoping to discover the physical roots of genius.

Later research showed a correlation between physical appearance and perception of leadership ability. Since 1900, the taller of the two US presidential candidates has generally won the election, with a height advantage being seen by the public as reflecting ‘greatness’ and showing superior communication and leadership skills. Studies also show that women who advance at work tend to be taller, more attractive, thinner and more youthful-looking than colleagues who are not promoted as often.

However, it is of interest to note the findings of a group of Californian researchers regarding CEOs’ faces. They asked naive college students to rank CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies on a number of traits, based on the CEO’s facial appearance1. Predictably, and consistent with social role theory, female CEOs were rated more highly on a cluster of communal traits such as supportiveness, compassion and warmth, while male CEOs were rated more highly on an agentic traits cluster (leadership, dominance, powerfulness). Surprisingly, however, the study found a correlation between female CEOs who were rated highly on communal traits and their company’s Fortune 1000 rank and profits. A high agentic composite for males also predicted company rank – but only marginally. The report does not discuss why these variables are related; that is, there is no suggestion that certain facial characteristics cause a CEO to be more successful (and so it would be premature for less successful leaders to consider visiting a plastic surgeon!).  But is it possible that, in time, such studies will have implications for corporate selection and promotion practices?

  1. Pillmer, J., Graham, E.R. and Burke, D.M. (2014) The face says it all: CEOs, gender and predicting corporate performance, The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 6, 855–864.

Dr Richard Bunning, Teacher, EBS MBA Programme About Dr Richard Bunning, Teacher, EBS MBA Programme

Co-author of Leadership with Tony Berry and co-examiner for the Leadership elective.