Saturday, September 25, 2010

President in the Grey Flannel Suit: Nixon and Kennedy reconsidered

A heated debate in leadership centers around the nature of how physical traits impact one's potential to lead. Systematic research shows that certain characteristics, such as height and attractiveness, can predict leadership (if even just a little bit). Taller people earn more money than shorter people (about $800) per year, and people who are slightly more attractive have better jobs (but not really beautiful people, we don't take really beautiful people seriously).

But the difference between what people attribute to leaders isn't always indicative of leadership effectiveness. A recent article at Slate.com, a product of the Washington Post, recently revisited the Kennedy-Nixon debate. Those of you who have taken my class know that I like to refer to the debates as a bit of conventional wisdom, that illustrates the point of how physical characteristics can have an impact.

Here is a link to the article:

http://www.slate.com/id/2268453/

There are a lot of examples of how physical characteristics impact perceptions of one's leadership ability . . . I look forward to hearing other examples readers of this blog might recognize. Stay tuned for a soon to appear blog, Joaquin Pheonix and the high art of deception.

9 comments:

Krishnan Sankaranarayanan said...

Actually, there may be a relationship (may be not causality) between "power" and physical attributes. For example, "A survey of Fortune 500 CEO height in 2005 revealed that they were on average 6 ft 0 in (1.83 m) tall, which is approximately 4 inches (10 cm) taller than the average American man. 30% were 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) tall or more; in comparison only 3.9% of the overall United States population is of this height" (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: “So Much for That Merit Raise: The Link between Wages and Appearance, taken from Wikipedia).

Let me throw something else out there. During childhood, kids who are taller/stronger etc., can get away with more things, and enter a positive reinforcement cycle, which allows for them to have can-do attitude. Couple that with the evolutionary basis that people want to listen to a leader (the alpha), and these two seem to suggest that if you're bigger, you can be more successful. Just a wild hypothesis though, but you never know!

When groups are first formed, in the initial period, when the dynamics are fairly fluid, there is confidence building and a "sparring" between what you can get away with. If you are confident (based on your prior experience), you may simply take control and reinforce the biological basis of what makes a good leader.

RyanDonahue20 said...

I would argue Barack Obama was able leverage the same powerful imagery JFK did, and both overcame their limited political experience (at least in the eyes of voters) to win their elections. As a junior Senator from Illinois, the President defeated a former First Lady in Hillary Clinton and long-time Senator John McCain to win the 2008 election.

Similar to JFK, Obama used his charismatic image to express a message of hope, change, and a break from the status quo. Some of the same flattering adjectives used for JFK in this article, “… Handsome, dapper, poised, and articulate,” were and are still used to describe our current President. While in the eyes of many the jury is still out on his ultimate effectiveness as a leader (during his stint as President), he certainly plays the part.

Alice Chan said...

One interesting note is how employment discrimination law is also beginning to play a role in this topic. When I previously worked in the legal field, the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would periodically bring up in discussions about adding height and weight as one of the protected categories, such as age, race, gender, pregnancies, etc. It is also interesting to point out that DC laws include discrimination based on “personal appearance” as an unlawful discriminatory practice (see DC’s Office of Human Rights: http://ohr.dc.gov/ohr/frames.asp?doc=/ohr/lib/ohr/pro_acts_of_discrimination.pdf). Although proving discriminatory acts based on this category could be rather difficult, the fact that personal appearance is included indicates that the law recognizes that managers might have an “unconscious prejudice” (as Malcolm Gladwell argues in Blink) on how successful a potential job candidate is based on his or her appearance. As more research is conducted on this topic, I do think that in the future, weight and height will become protected categories in more states.

Virginia Castro said...

Alice Chen, you bring up an very interesting point because although there are legal frameworks in place to counter act these gender biases and discrimination, how do managers make these decisions based on the laws without including their on personal bias of what is culutrally considered to be attractive?


The Journal of Economic Psychology published an article examining the impact of gender and beauty in the labor market. ("Beauty, gender and stereotypes: Evidence from laboratory experiments" http://mason.gmu.edu/~rpetrie1/Beauty_JOEP_2008.pdf) which pointed out that attractive men men win out, as opposed to attractive women.

One of the interesting conclusions that GMU highlights is that in the workplace, the beauty premium is not due to the actions of attractive people, but seems to be due to the expectations of how attractive people will behave within the social contruct of gender roles. It fits well into social expectancy theory. We expect
beautiful people to be more cooperative, and thus behave more cooperatively, but research reveals that attractive
people are no more or less cooperative than others.
with no attractive people

Moreover, Cristen Conger, Staff writer, HowStuffWorks.com and co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast, posted on the Huffington Post an article called, "Just How Good, is Too Good Looking".

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cristen-conger/just-how-good-is-too-good_b_657308.html)

It makes for a good quick read. With the increase of women in HR position in corporate America, it will be interesting to see how these perceptions in the workplace will change, if at all....

Christopher Bailey said...

In my experience, physical traits do impact one's perception of a leader. Recently a new vice president joined our team at work. The previous lady that held the position, who was admired by all, decided to retire. She was a very effective leader that was able to relate her employee, which created a family type environment. The atmosphere made everyone feel welcomed and needed. Her physical traits can be described as short in height, normal weight, and with a soft voice.

Last week the new vice president was introduced to the group. As he made his rounds to shake each person's hand, one could tell a large discrepancy from the previous leader. He was very tall with an ex-football player build, military haircut, strong loud voice, and a very firm handshake. Immediately those physical traits had employees talking about how mean and tough this new boss would be. Some started to complain that they did not like him without actually getting to know him. They do not know his leadership style, how he will treat them, or what he will do within the department, but they did pass judgment based on their perception of his physical traits.

After one week of working with the new leader, I can tell his physical traits do mirror his actions in his new position. He is looking to come into the organization and make some noise. He is looking to change processes up to find savings right away without getting to fully understand the dynamics of how this organization runs. Some of his ideas are very good and necessary, but within a week, I believe his physical traits have impacted his effectiveness to lead.

Garrett said...

I work in the financial field of government contracting and many times our financial leaders are judged not only by their physical characteristics but also their choice of cars.

When it comes to physical characteristics weight is often seen as a visible indicator of a person's self control. While this is unfair, especially since there are so many health factors that effect weight outside of over eating, this stereotype still persists.

When it comes car choice I noticed that no CFO's within my business (there are five one of each sector) drives a luxury car or even a new car even though their salaries more than justify it. I have asked several people about it and the answer remains largely the same "CFO's need to consistently portray the image of fiscal responsiblity and having a fancy or new car can be viewed in a negative light". Because an executive has a long drive to work and wants to be comfortable does that mean he or she is not fiscally responsible?

I think this idea of perception has a signifcant impact on the effectiveness of a leader especially prior to a deep relationship being forged with a new team.

aldolat said...

My perception is that looks definitely play a role in the work place. I think a better looking person definitely has a slight edge against their equal peer(s).
While, certainly a person can't help the way his/her face looks (unless they get plastic surgery), they can do something about their appearance. I think Dress plays very big role in the workplace.

One book I read titled, How to be a Star at Work by Robert Kelley addresses appearance and tells his readers how important dress and maintenance of one's looks are. He advises people to dye their hair, buy clothes as soon as needed, and emphasizes that new clothing is an investment.

aldolat said...

My perception is that looks definitely play a role in the work place. I think a better looking person definitely has a slight edge against their equal peer(s).
While, certainly a person can't help the way his/her face looks (unless they get plastic surgery), they can do something about their appearance. I think Dress plays very big role in the workplace.

One book I read titled, How to be a Star at Work by Robert Kelley addresses appearance and tells his readers how important dress and maintenance of one's looks are. He advises people to dye their hair, buy clothes as soon as needed, and emphasizes that new clothing is an investment.

Natasha Fong-Cohen said...

I don't think there's any way you can slice it where unattractive people in general are well-perceived in society, but in the workplace, there does seem to be evidence that you can reach a "limit" to how attractive you can be before it starts to have a negative impact on advancement, along the lines with what the Huffington Post article Virginia posted mentions.

According to the Economic Times, a study in the journal of Social Psychology was published, indicating that "Positions such as manager of research and development, director of finance, mechanical engineer and construction supervisor were not considered favourable for attractive women" (participants in the study were given a list of jobs and photos of potential applicants). It is noteworthy that attractive men suffered no such discrimination and were always at an advantage! Here is the link to the full article: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/news-by-industry/jobs/Attractive-women-also-face-workplace-discrimination/articleshow/6274141.cms

This seems to play into notions of sexuality and what it means for a women to be attractive. An attractive woman is seen as "too" sexual, thereby diminishing her credibility (people don't mind this when a woman is a receptionist, but they have a real problem with a sexy/attractive woman being in charge of a Fortune 500 company). To me, this goes back to the old double standard: men can be sexy and smart, women can only be one or the other.