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

Lost in translation: Leadership appearance across cultures

Several studies have demonstrated a link between facial appearance and CEO success in Western businesses (e.g., Livingston & Pearce, 2009; Rule & Ambady, 2008, 2009). The relationship between facial appearance and CEO success is not universal, however. Indeed, the same facial traits that predict the success of CEOs of Western companies are not related to financial performance for the CEOs of top-ranking Japanese (Rule, Ishii, & Ambady, 2011) or Chinese (Harms, Han, & Chen, 2012) companies. Studies have demonstrated that American and Japanese perceivers agree in the personality inferences that they make about both American and Japanese male politicians (Rule et al., 2010). Importantly, though, different traits predict who wins the elections in each culture. Specifically, traits related to warmth predict the electoral success of Japanese politicians whereas traits related to power predict the outcomes of American elections. Likewise, Americans (who value power in leaders) can reliably prognosticate which candidates will win US elections and Japanese (who value warmth in leaders) can do so for elections in Japan, but neither group can effectively forecast who will win elections in the other nation because they apply their own set of values (e.g., Americans assume that Japanese voters will elect powerful leaders the way that they do). Thus, although people from different cultures may agree in their perceptions of traits from faces, they use this information very differently when forming impressions of leadership because they rely on the values inherent to their own culture.

Similar to politicians, the discrepancies in facial traits that correlate with the success of CEOs in Eastern and Western nations are not due to differences in perceptions of personality. Instead, they are likely due to differences in leadership styles (Den Hartog et al., 2000; Jung & Avolio, 1999). In the West, leaders are traditionally ascribed domineering, powerful traits (more closely related to “transactional” leadership; Bass, 1985; Burns, 1978). Accordingly, the most successful CEOs in the West look powerful (Rule & Ambady, 2008; Rule & Tskhay, 2014). Conversely, leaders in the East are typically perceived as more collectivist and persuade followers to work towards the group goal (more closely tied to a “transformational” leadership style; Jung & Avolio, 1999). It is therefore not surprising that perceptions of dominance and power do not relate to CEO success in China and Japan (Harms et al., 2012; Rule et al., 2011). The facial cues to CEO success are therefore not universal. Rather, they seem to be modified by cultural norms. Indeed, research has found that financial performance of Chinese CEOs related to perceptions of risk-taking proclivity (Harms et al., 2012), a personality trait that may be uniquely suited to the success of leaders in China because of the uncertain and dynamic nature of Chinese corporate culture (Chang, 2009).


Facing the facts: What people should do with this

These topics clearly warrant additional exploration, and such research is actively underway. As new research is published, however, an emerging theme is becoming clear: facial appearance is related to success in business. Indeed, estimates suggest that business leaders’ facial appearance predicts up to 14% of the difference in profits between different companies (Rule & Ambady, 2008, 2011a). So what are people to make of these findings?

The temptation for cosmetic surgery notwithstanding, facial appearance might play a role only as a measure of last resort. Among a highly qualified pool of candidates, the evaluation of abilities may reach a ceiling at which it becomes difficult to distinguish one candidate from another. In these cases, candidate selection could fall to a qualitative judgment: a gut feeling about who might be best. These intangible assessments may be the exact province of facial appearance. The person who best looks the part may inch ahead among a pool of excellent leaders. It has long been known that physically attractive people are thought to have more positive traits than less attractive people (Dion, Berscheid & Walster, 1972), and studies in human resources have found that this bias affects how likely someone is to be hired (Dipboye, Arvey, & Terpstra, 1977). Along this line of argument, psychologists have shown that, in the absence of better information, physical traits can be used as a proxy for behavior. Over the span of a career, these effects could accumulate so that the individual chosen to lead gets more experience with leadership, might receive sponsorship to attend seminars on leadership, and may be given the opportunity to learn and refine the skills needed to succeed as a leader. All this leads to more success. In short, people can become leaders simply because they look like leaders.

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