The Face of Leadership: How CEOs’ Facial Appearance Predicts Business Success

CEO Ethnicity. Another moderator of facial appearance and CEO success is ethnicity. Inter-group image theory suggests that Black individuals evoke greater feelings of threat than other groups (Alexander, Brewer, & Hermann, 1999; Alexander, Brewer, & Livingston, 2005). As a result of these widely-held but overgeneralized and often erroneous stereotypes of Black people, a dominant and powerful appearance in the face of a Black person may exacerbate the perceived level of threat and be disadvantageous to Black individuals in corporate roles. Conversely, a “baby-faced” appearance, which attenuates perceptions of dominance and threat (Zebrowitz, 1997), may minimize feelings of threat and competition. Black individuals with babyfaces may therefore benefit in mixed-ethnicity workplaces (such as the American business landscape) because the stereotypes about babyfaced people may partially combat the stereotypes about Black people. One pair of researchers tested this empirically (Livingston & Pearce, 2009). They found that Black male CEOs (either current or former CEOs of companies ranked on the Fortune 500 listing) were rated as more baby-faced than White CEOs, even though a separate sample revealed that Black people were perceived as less baby-faced than White people in the general population. Moreover, babyfacedness positively associated with Black CEOs’ individual financial compensation, as well as their company’s status in the Fortune 500, though these correlations did not reach statistical significance due to the small number of Black CEOs in the sample (faces of only 10 Black CEOs could be collected for stimuli). These results suggest that, although a baby-faced appearance can have deleterious effects for White leaders who may strive to look dominant and powerful (Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005), it may reduce perceptions of threat so as to benefit Black CEOs in corporate America.


What about the women?

Most CEOs of successful large-scale corporations are men (Oakley, 2000). This leaves open the question of whether the faces of female leaders might also provide clues to their success, particularly as the traits predicting success tend to be associated with masculinity (e.g., dominance; Riggio & Riggio, 2010). To address this, one study gathered the faces of all 20 female CEOs in the Fortune 1000:2006 list (all but one of whom was Caucasian), and found that judgments of competence and leadership ability predicted company profit when controlling for their ages, emotional affect, and attractiveness (as in the preceding study with male CEOs; Rule & Ambady, 2008), as well as perceptions of their masculinity (which alters perceptions of female leaders; Sczesny, Spreeman, & Stahlberg, 2006). Despite the difference in sex, these judgments are similar to those that predict profit for male CEOs (Rule & Ambady, 2008), demonstrating that facial appearance is a reliable predictor of CEO success among both men and women.

A recent study probed the question of female CEOs further by matching 20 female CEOs from the Fortune 1000:2007 listing with 20 male CEOs of companies ranked directly above or below them (Pillemer, Graham, & Burke, 2014). The results of this study found that judgments of powerfulness predicted the profits for companies led by male CEOs (as in the earlier work), but that judgments of compassion and supportiveness actually predicted the success of female CEOs. Furthermore, a composite of judgments of communal traits (compassion, interpersonal warmth, supportiveness) predicted company rank and profit when controlling for the female CEOs’ ages, affect, and attractiveness. These findings suggest that the relationship between facial appearance and leader success for female CEOs may be moderated by traits more traditionally ascribed to women, a contextual factor comparable to those found for culture and ethnicity. Interestingly, a composite of agentic traits ( competence, dominance, facial maturity, leadership, powerfulness) marginally correlated with company rank as well, a finding that the researchers interpreted as supporting the theory that perceptions of leadership may be becoming more androgynous in the modern era (Koenig et al., 2011). Although this may be true, both studies examining female CEOs were limited by the small sample of women available in the Fortune 1000 listings. It is clear, however, that leadership success can be foretold by facial appearance of women as well as men. It will be exciting for future research to elucidate how a leader’s sex interacts with the facial traits that correlate with leadership success.


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