From John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, American presidents have trended toward the handsome and charismatic. Likewise, many business leaders, including Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, are beacons of confidence and poise, who flash disarming smiles and dress to impress.
Studies show that being gifted with beauty and sex appeal may help job candidates land an offer or even a bigger paycheck. Does attractiveness also make people more influential, giving them a direct path to leadership?
“There is evidence that attractive people are seen as more compelling,” says Matthew Kohut, co-author of new book “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.” “A person’s looks can have a blinding effect on our perceptions of them.”
The benefits of winning the genetic lottery seem nearly unlimited. Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode, in research for her book “The Beauty Bias,” found that attractive students are considered smarter, nice-looking teachers get better reviews, appealing workers make more money, and good-looking politicians get more votes. Researchers have even found that when attractive people ask strangers to do them a favour, they are more likely to grant the request.
This inherent power of persuasion would seem to serve a leader well. According to Kohut, three core things affect our perceptions of an executive: their position, performance, and presence. Most people who have reached the level of CEO have mastered the art of presenting themselves, he says.
Indeed, research by think tank The Center for Talent Innovation shows that being perceived as leadership material is essential to being promoted into leadership positions. No matter your performance, lacking “executive presence” may ruin your chances at a top job. Executive presence, the study found, is comprised of one’s ability to project gravitas, communication skills, and appearance.
Of course, what’s considered attractive is in great part socially constructed and easily manipulated. Good grooming, tailoring, and keeping up with the latest fashions go a long way toward enhancing appearance.
But biological factors can’t be denied, says Kohut. For example, men are paid a premium for height and women for beautiful faces. Tall men are significantly more likely to attain managerial positions, one study shows. Meanwhile, female features associated with attractiveness include large eyes, plump lips, and smooth brows, according to research by Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff.
Several nonverbal cues may also contribute to attractiveness and, in turn, one’s ability to influence. Confidence makes people more attractive, says Kohut, as people respond favourably to those who seem at ease with themselves. In fact, when study participants were shown silent video clips of unfamiliar political debates, they were able to accurately pick the winning candidate without hearing a word they said.
While beauty may give you a leg up on the competition, Kohut emphasises that it’s no silver bullet. “Attractiveness has a very immediate effect, but it will wear off once you start to see the other signals the person gives,” he says. In other words, a nice face will not make up for incompetence.
Those that have beauty combined with brains and the ability to perform, however, get shot straight to the top.
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