How to Succeed in Politics, Business or Sports: Look Like a Politician, CEO or Coach


If you got the job, chances are you had "the look." According to a paper published in October 2014's Leadership Quarterly, having the face that fits a profession's stereotypical look may play a role in whether or not someone rises to the top of his or her field.

"The implications are as clear as they are sobering," the paper's co-author Christopher Olivola, a marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told Mic. "People may be biased to select leaders based on superficial qualities that have nothing to do with actual leadership ability, merely because these facial qualities fit our stereotype of what a good leader looks like."

The study: The researchers showed 614 British participants black-and-white photos of people who were leaders in four domains: business, politics, sports and the military. The subjects of the photos were all Americans who were successful in their respective fields, but not so successful that the study's subjects would recognize them.

For the test, two pictures were put up on a computer screen and a participant was told to select which of the two photos corresponded with a named profession: an athletic coach, military general, CEO or politician. Additionally, participants had to rate their confidence in their guess on a scale of 1 to 100.

To ensure the participants were making their judgments based purely on their perception of the faces, the researchers cropped the hair out of all the photos — after all, an athlete is more likely to have a shaved head than a politician.

All things being equal, every participant in the study had a 50% chance of making the right choice. On average, participants reported having low confidence in their choices. But when it came to determining the profession of the top-dog CEOs, military figures and coaches, the participants made the correct choice more than half the time. This predictive ability was particularly strong when deciding whether a face belonged to a military man or a boardroom baron: People were almost 60% likely to successfully determine who might be the businessman when shown a photo of a CEO and a general.

The researchers pointed out that because the participants were British, and asked to make judgments on American leaders, the effect may cross cultural and national borders.

"Our biggest worry is that people will incorrectly interpret our results to mean that people can correctly identify leadership quality from facial appearances," Olivola said. He emphasized that this is not the case: "Our results could just as likely or, we believe, more likely be evidence that the leadership selection process is biased by facial appearances."

The Image Bank

Politicians are tough to pin down. On average, participants in the study were slightly less than 50% likely to make the right choice when deciding which of the two faces belonged to the politician. When a sports coach was included in the photo pairing, however, participants seemed to be more able to determine who the politician was.

"The fact that people cannot reliably identify political leaders in contrast to the other three domains (military, sports, business) suggests either that leader quality for these three domains is revealed in the face, or more likely that leaders are being selected based on their appearance and not because of their actual qualities. We certainly didn't expect this result going in," Olivola said.

In retrospect, he explained, it makes sense. Unlike the three other domains in which leaders are selected by a smaller, more homogeneous group of insiders, political leaders are elected by a larger, more diverse base of voters. These voters may vary enormously in their facial stereotyping; what looks like a politician's face to a voter in New York City may not seem so obvious to a voter in, say, Nebraska. As a result, political leaders have less distinctive faces.

Judging a book by its cover may be natural, but it's also bad for democracy. While the "look" of a coach may be a reasonable indicator of their athleticism (a physique counts for something if you're supposed to keep others in top shape) other professions may be poorly served by people who possess the right face but the wrong qualifications.

For example, if voters decide to support a candidate who looks more "presidential" — and they frequently do — that leaves the success or failure of a representative government up to the set of a candidate's cheekbones. It's a dangerous mentality to have.

"What we show, for the first time, is that certain facial appearances predict which leadership domain a person is likely to end up in. Note that everyone in our sample of faces has become a highly ranked leader in their respective domain," said Olivola. "We need to be careful that we are not letting ourselves be swayed by a person's appearance when we are selecting leaders."