Judging Leadership Effectiveness by Appearance

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


8 replies »

  1. So we judge people the same way we judge books … by the cover. I’m not surprised.

    I like your point about western businesses doing business in eastern cultures and the awareness we need in understanding cultural differences and perceptions.

    • And all too often we assume that everyone is like we are… with all the same assumptions. It can be really awkward at first when exploring these differences.

      Thanks for being such a consistent and engaged reader of this blog. I really enjoy your comments.


  2. Very interesting. Thanks for the post.

    It reminds me of research about ITS’s- the list of implicit leadership traits we form and carry around with us. We judge so many on what we expect, not necessarily what they need to do.

  3. Hi Susan.
    This is clearly linked to the cultural nature of our Implicit Leadership Theories. I wrote a post a while back…https://colleensharen.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/implicit-leadership-theories/ on ILTs.

    That’s the challenge with leadership, everyone defines it differently due to organizational, industry and national cultures, as well as personal experience. As a result, we make big mistakes in our leadership approaches, because we assume everyone is like ourselves.

    Thanks for being such a supportive reader. Much appreciated.


  4. This is so true. I work for an organization and the head of HR who has to be 64 thinks someone younger than her is not as wise for some reason. She feels she needs to hire all her old friends to work on certain jobs and doesn’t want the younger (by 15 to 20 years younger) recruiters to build relationships as she wants management to know her first for a time period. I am so baffled by this and frustrated. I don’t know what she is talking about half the time and our head boss (her age) who hired her is not investigating her work (they are old friends). So at 38 I am considered a youngster? Do I need crow lines to show that I am capable of recruiting and building relationships after raising a family and being successful as a recruiter for years?

    • Ahh work. These kinds of situations are often not what they seem. Perhaps she is worried that others will see her as too old, and not competent. (Our world is full of ageism, as you will shortly learn).

      Maybe she is doing this not because she doesn’t think you are wise, but because she is worried about her own situation. So she holds tightly to control, in order to feel more confident. This isn’t about you necessarily, it is about her.

      My advice, perhaps you could talk to her about how you feel. Perhaps she doesn’t realize that her behaviour is resulting in negatives with her direct reports. In the worst case, you might find out some home truths about why she is not engaging you in decision making. Perhaps she has some good reasons for this. Either way, you win, by developing a better relationship, based on information, rather than assumptions.

      I know that this is a tough conversation, but one that might be well worth it. Your other alternative is to look for another job. Not ideal in this economic environment, but, unless she is going to be retiring soon, it might be necessary.

      Good luck

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