Character Head N°9, by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, after 1770. Wien Museum Karlsplaz (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #479

Facial Cues: Can We Judge Who Looks Like a Leader?

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Key Concept

Previous studies have shown that facial characteristics can help elevate a person into leadership roles. New research shows that different facial characteristics fit different domains — for example, businesspeople are expected to look ‘competent,’ while sports leaders look more ‘masculine.’ The research also shows that most people don’t have much confidence in their leadership inferences based on facial cues. But those who are confident, including corporate board members, may unconsciously be placing too much weight on facial cues in selecting leaders.

Idea Summary

A number of academic studies have shown that because many of us form impressions about potential leaders from their facial characteristics, certain facial characteristics (for example, a ‘competent’ look) can help people achieve leadership positions. At least six different studies show that CEOs who share certain facial characteristics command higher salaries or are hired by more successful companies than CEOs who do not share those characteristics.

While previous research focused on facial characteristics within domains, new research from a team of academics from the Warwick Business School in the UK, and the universities of Carnegie Mellon and Pennsylvania State in the U.S., explores the different facial characteristics that might apply to different domains — specifically military, business, sports and politics.

The new research focuses on two questions: 1) whether the domain of a leader can be inferred from facial characteristics; and 2) whether people are confident that they can identify the domain.

The research consisted of two studies. In the first, participants were shown two faces and asked which belonged to a target domain (e.g. Which of these two faces belong to a businessman?’). The participants were then asked to rate, on a sliding scale, their confidence in their choice. In the second study, participants were shown a single face and asked to evaluate the face based on several basic dimensions  (examples of the 15 dimensions in the study include ‘baby-faced,’ ‘confident,’ ‘disciplined,’ ‘threatening,’ ‘masculine,’ and ‘likeable’).

The data from the two studies were then analysed, and the following conclusions were drawn:

  • People can accurately discern — based on facial cues — which leaders come from the domains of the military, business or sports. They are less accurate in identifying political leaders.
  • People do not have much confidence in their own judgements. In fact, their inferences were much more accurate than they believed.
  • After the 15 dimensions in the second study were grouped into three general components — warmth, competence, masculinity/maturity — to which was added the dimension of attractiveness, specific characteristics for the different domains emerged. Business and political leaders were generally more attractive and displayed more warmth, as opposed to sports and military leaders. Sports leaders looked less competent than business leaders, but more masculine and mature than the other types of leaders.

Business Application

In this study, people from the general population in the UK were able to identify above chance whether someone was a military, business or sports leader. Political leaders, it seems, do not have defining facial characteristics.

Realising that we are unaware we rely on facial cues as we form impressions of leaders, what can boards, senior executives or other decision makers do to guard against this potential bias?

There is no subjective study of the link between look and reality (e.g. sports leaders may ‘look’ less competent than business leaders, but that hardly means that they are less competent). However, the psychological perception inferred from facial characteristics that fit the domain in which a leader operates may make the leader more persuasive and credible.

However, evaluators must be cautious about relying too much on facial cues to predict leadership success. That many people underestimate their ability to draw accurate inferences from social cues may in fact indicate that the accuracy is based on subconscious indicators. According to the research team, this, in turn, means that those who believe strongly in their ability to discern future leaders — including corporate board members and voters — may fall prey to the same biases as their less confident peers. Yet, they may speak with more confidence while being unaware of these potential biases.

In short, the research team warns, beware of unconscious biases that may influence decisions about who will or will not be an effective leader. The result could be the rejection of good candidates and the elevation of the less deserving (but who look right).

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Idea conceived

  • October 2014

Idea posted

  • February 2015

DOI number



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