Do you look healthy enough to be a leader?

You may have noticed how US President Barack Obama jogs up and down the stairs to an airplane and you may remember former US President Bill Clinton’s $300 haircuts. And we can all probably remember Prime Ministers Tony Abbott jogging and John Howard walking (pretty fast) around Lake Burley Griffin, and Julia Gillard’s perfectly coiffed locks. Leaders need to look their best and look healthy, whether they’re political leaders or business leaders.

A Dutch study confirms this rather obvious hypothesis. First, the authors combined the faces of three young, clean shaven white males not wearing glasses or visible jewellery and computer-adjusted the combined face by independently manipulating health and intelligence, giving 32 variations of four basic facial characteristics:

  • high health, high intelligence
  • low health, high intelligence
  • high health, low intelligence
  • low health, low intelligence

(Because only the face was involved in the experiment, the main health cues involved complexion and the main intelligence cues involved face shape.)

Then they developed four business scenarios involving cooperation vs competition and exploratory change vs stable exploitation, each requiring a different type of leader.

Can you guess what they found? Looking smart is not as important as looking as healthy! An interesting sub-finding was that facial health positively affects perceived masculinity while facial intelligence negatively affects perceived masculinity. (Do you think that means that healthy-looking women look more masculine and smart-looking women look more feminine? I feel another study coming on!)

Anyway, if you’re a leader or aspiring leader, get out there in the fresh air and do some exercise. (Fresh air improves your complexion–but put on sun screen!). Looking smart is an optional extra!

Does this sound silly? Consider this: lots of other studies have found no correlation between leadership effectiveness and intelligence; in fact, very smart leaders don’t lead as well as well as leaders of average intelligence, possibly because they can’t relate to their team members as well.

This study didn’t examine leadership effectiveness but leadership selection: people had only the facial cues of intelligence and health to choose leaders for the scenarios they were presented. They didn’t actually interview the faces so they couldn’t tell whether they actually knew their stuff (after all, they weren’t even real people!) But, all things being equal in terms of knowing your stuff and interview skills, the healthy-looking candidate is going to win out. Remember that next time you go for a job interview–at least if you’re a young, white, clean shaven male. Women: look good, look smart, and look healthy.