We’ve all heard about the importance of first impressions. Recent research from the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies suggests that we can actually predict someone’s personality quite accurately merely from a picture of the individual. And, get this, we associate specific the effectiveness of their leadership with the personality traits we find in their photo. (Harms, Han & Chen 2012)
One hundred and five U.S. college students were shown photos of 71 Chinese CEOs. They were asked to rate the CEOs age, personality (intelligent, dominant, risk-taking and supportive), attractiveness, emotional mood (positive or negative), and leadership effectiveness.
The results showed that perceived effectiveness was “strongly related to perceived intelligence, dominance, supportiveness, emotional positivity and attractiveness” (p.5). Once the researchers controlled for age, organizational size and type, Westerners used three factors to assess leader effectiveness: “perceived emotional positivity, intelligence, and dominance” (p. 5) However, none of these factors were associated with performance measures of Return on Equity and Return on Assets. Only perceived risk-taking was associated with actual performance.
The study’s authors argue that the Western students used their own “cultural norms” of good leadership, and applied them to Chinese leaders. Previous research on Chinese leadership suggests that while historically an authoritative style of leadership was common, that a new “risk-taking” style has emerged embracing both creativity and risk-taking. (Wang et al, 2011 as cited in Harms et al.) The Western raters of these Chinese CEOs did not consider risk-taking as an important factor in perceived leadership ability, but risk-taking was the only factor associated with actual performance.
So what is the bottom line for managers? First, when expanding into China, whether through joint ventures, acquisitions or green field operations, selecting leaders will not be simple, as the characteristics needed for successful leadership in China are quite different from those we believe are needed in the U.S. Second, as a manager, it might be useful to consider whether your employees have a different cultural conception of effective leadership. As our domestic workforces become more multicultural, the nature of our role models might become more varied. It might be worthwhile to have an explicit discussion about perceived leadership traits and behaviours.
Finally, the biggest surprise for me was that how a leader looks does matter. We are hard-wired to link facial characteristics with behaviours. “…when exposed to facial photographs of strangers, participants have been accurately able to rate co-operativeness, aggression, ethical behaviour and criminality.” (p. 3). Something to think about.
Source: Harms, Peter D., Han, Guohong & Chen, Huaiyu. (2012.) Recognizing Leadership at a Distance: A Study of Leader Effectiveness Across Cultures. Advanced Online Publication. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. DOI:10.11177/1548051812436812