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Mirror, mirror

By Stephen Langton - October 13, 2011

The Bush House Telegraph
News and views from the Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership, Bush House, London

When people select leaders, their brains it seems are conditioned into thinking "might is right." Give the impression of physical frailty and you’re immediately on the also-ran list. Isn’t it time to reverse this ancient prejudice?

MirrorFall, or autumn as we call it here in the UK, is the season of shorter days and longer nights, barer trees, and bigger utility bills. Time to huddle round the focus of the home—the plasma TV screen—and pour yourself a glass of something restorative.

A word of warning, though: If you find yourself misty-eyed and mellow it might not be the wine—it might be the commercial break. According to research recently published by Dr Ian Cook of the University of California (UCLA), ads that feature good-looking models turn our minds—in layman’s terms—to mush.

Watch a commercial that links a product or brand with physical attractiveness and the level of activity in the emotional processing and decision-making parts of your brain falls. You’re more gullible, more uninhibited, less advertising-literate.

Dr Cook’s findings confirm what most of us already knew and they’re unlikely to keep anyone awake at night. Good-looking people influence the choices we make as consumers? You’ve probably already filed that nugget of information under “That’s Life.”

So why am I starting a blog about leadership with it? Because the choices we make as followers can be similarly irrational. Reading about UCLA’s findings reminded me of a BBC interview earlier in the year with British science writer Anjana Ahuja. Co-author of the book Naturally Selected, Ahuja believes we choose leaders partly for their looks.

“We have an instinctive idea of what leaders look like,” she says.

It’s all evolution’s fault. We’re conditioned into picking the people who’d have the strength to defend us on the savannah or outside the cave. If you’re running for high office, height matters. So do weight and physical fitness and facial features such as a strong jawline.

“Ancestrally, these kinds of clues would be very important to gauge the success of people as leaders,” Ahuja told BBC Radio 4’s Follow the Leader programme.

“If you ask children to look at candidates in an electoral contest,” she added, “they’ll very often pick out the same winner as the electorate.”

And primitive “subconscious biases” don’t just affect people at the ballot box. If you want that seat in the boardroom, your face, it seems, must fit—literally.

“Top-ranked CEOs tend to have stronger jawlines than lower-ranked CEOs,” Ahuja continued.

Personally, I find it all a bit depressing. And no, not because I’m 5-foot-3 with a receding chin. Deloitte, like many companies, is big on diversity—earlier this month (3–5 October) we were proud sponsors of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, California. If you have to be over 6 foot with a strong jaw to be classed as “superior,” few female candidates for the top can stand a fair chance. There are clear implications for the over 50s, too: the older you get, the less “marketable” you will become—a particular cause for regret in these times of changing demographics and aging Western populations.

Prejudices towards the tall, the strong, and the heroic looking and, by extension, the young, are yet another reason why we need to handle recruitment and selection carefully. I despair when I hear people say they “went with the gut” when deciding whom to appoint to that critical post: we need to be able to state the reasons for choosing the people we do—and make sure they’re justifiable and rational. Height and might may well have been desirable on the savannah—but, in the boardroom, mental agility, communication skills, and qualities such as integrity are much more important.

Now, I’m not, of course, advocating positive discrimination for the short and physically “challenged” —that would just replace existing prejudices with new ones. And there’s clearly a big difference between a model or actress hired to sell a car and a colleague making a proposal or arguing their case. But I am saying that we need be aware of the irrational impulses that influence decisions.

Fundamentally, we need to get our priorities right. Three years ago, Director magazine, the in-house journal of Britain’s Institute of Directors, published an article in which executives admitted turning to plastic surgeons to help them stay at the top. Sad indictment of our times, surely?

Stephen LangtonStephen Langton is Managing Director, Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and has specialized in the field of leadership consulting for the past 16 years. His aim for DCSL is simple but ambitious: to be a center of excellence that understands, defines, and advances a knowledge and standard of leadership for the world.


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We all think about ending diffeernces between people on these basis but our appearance and outlook effect others in many ways.A good article in fact. :)

Interesting article. I'd be curious to know if there has been any research in this area but using people with a vision disability. What "rules of thumb" do they use to decide these matters. The reason I wonder is that it might help us understand how we could mitigate some of these evolutionary impediments.

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