In 2008, Swiss psychologist John Antonakis invited a group of school children into his lab and had them act out a scenario on which they were embarking on an adventurous sea voyage. He asked the children to choose a captain for their ship, and he showed them two pictures. One was of Barack Obama, and the other of Hillary Clinton—the two front-runners for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. However, neither of these persons had the name or face recognition back then that they do now, especially among schoolchildren in Switzerland. The youngsters overwhelmingly chose Obama to captain their ship.

This result is hard to interpret. On the one hand, we might have expected the children to choose Obama simply because he’s a man and the stereotype of a sea captain is male. On the other hand, we might have predicted they’d pick Clinton with her familiar European features. In other words, both race and gender are confounding variables in this experiment.

So Antonakis replicated the experiment, this time using pictures of candidates from 57 French parliamentary elections, none of whom were familiar in Switzerland. In each case, the pictures were matched for race and gender. The schoolchildren predicted the winner of the election 71% of the time. And when he asked Swiss adults to do the same, he got similar results. These findings suggest that adults may use the same decision-making processes as children to choose their leaders.

A review of the literature on judgments of leadership ability shows some interesting patterns. When researchers ask people to predict which of two candidates won the election just by looking at their face pictures, the results showed that:

  • People only need a fraction of a second to make accurate predictions.
  • There’s widespread agreement on which person looks more leader-like.
  • Similar results are obtained even in different cultures.
  • Young children and older adults make very similar leadership judgments.

These data suggest that we have innate mechanisms for inferring a person’s potential for leadership from the features of their face. In fact, we glean all sorts of useful information about other people just by looking at them. For example, we can judge a person’s physical strength and general health quite accurately just by looking at their face. We’re also reasonably good at discerning when a person is an extrovert or not. These qualities are all based on facial symmetry, which is an honest indicator of genetic diversity and a strong immune system. Generally speaking, we find people with symmetrical faces attractive.

However, judging people by their faces alone can lead us astray. On the one hand, we tend to assume that attractive people are also intelligent, in what’s called a “halo” effect. This means that we aren’t very good a judging how smart attractive people really are. On the other hand, we're much better at predicting the intelligence of unattractive people! So there must be other cues of intelligence in the face, but we ignore them in the case of pretty people.

It’s not certain which features of the face are marks of leadership, although facial symmetry is likely one of them. But of course, the really important question is whether these facial cues, whatever they are, help us select people that will actually be good leaders. And the answer is no—at least not in modern society. Facial features do predict a person’s rise to leadership positions—as well as the higher incomes they earn—but they don’t predict that person’s effectiveness as a leader.

Why, then, do we choose leaders on the basis of facial features that don’t do a good job of predicting leadership potential? One reason is evolutionary. Facial features may in fact predict good leadership in the context of a hunter-gatherer society, where the goal is to organize small groups to achieve specific goals. This may be true in modern life as well. If we’re choosing the captain of our amateur soccer team or the chair of an ad-hoc committee at work, stamina and social skills are probably the two most important characteristics for effective leadership. And we’re pretty good at discerning those qualities in people’s faces.

Antonakis speculates that the “leadership look” may also come about through a process known as self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re naturally attracted to certain types of faces, which we interpret as signaling strength, extroversion, and competence. We then approach these people, subtly conveying our expectations to them, and they in turn assume those expected behaviors and qualities.

In the studies we’ve just reviewed, people were asked to make leadership judgments on the basis of pictures.  However, in real life we make snap-judgments about other people not only on the basis of static facial features but also on dynamic body language cues. And research shows that the right body language and social skills can overcome the wrong facial features.

If you aspire to a leadership position, there’s little you can do to your face if you don't already have the "right look." But body language and social skills can be learned, and there are plenty of self-help books that claim to reveal the secrets of the game. (Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is still a best-seller after 80 years on the market.)

Highly competent people without the “face of a leader” can still ascend to leadership roles. It takes lots of hard work—they can’t just skate along on good looks alone. But isn’t that what we really want from our leaders anyway?

References

Antonakis, J. & Eubanks, D. L. (2017). Looking leadership in the face. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 270-275.

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