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Careers Insight: Be alert to tall stories

When trying to identify a successful business leader in the making, don’t be influenced by stereotypes or you may miss out on the real talent hidden just below the surface

Jupp-Clare-2017As the old saying goes, it takes all sorts. But does this apply to industry leaders or is there a more successful type of person as far as image is concerned?

Recently I Googled ‘successful business leader’ in a hunt for images for a training slideshow. The inevitable happened: the screen was filled with men. I was unhappy about this; as we know, our sector is full of shining examples of hugely successful women.

That said, for the purpose of this article I must focus on the stereotype of the successful business leader as a male. Does he look a particular way? Well, according to research, beautiful people are more successful. For their paper entitled ‘Why Beauty Matters’, Harvard economist Markus Mobius and Wesleyan University economist Tanya Rosenblat found that attractive people earned 12 to 14 per cent more than unattractive people, regardless of gender.

So what other features figure in the leadership stakes? Research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests there is something powerful about having a bald head. In three experiments, researcher Albert Mannes found that: 1) men with shaved heads were rated as more dominant; 2) men whose hair was digitally removed were perceived as more dominant, taller and stronger than their authentic selves; and 3) men experiencing natural hair loss might improve their interpersonal standing by shaving.

Mannes argues the shaved-and-dominant link comes from cultural associations, in the same way that being tall and having a deep voice signal dominance too.

Hitting the heights

Moving on, I decided to investigate the possibility that height has a bearing on business success. Being married to a technical giant of 6 feet 7 inches’ stature, I found this of particular interest.

Research consistently suggests both tall men and tall women have an advantage over their shorter counterparts. A US study even advocated that the taller one was, the more one earned. Perhaps more importantly, further research found that taller people were more satisfied with work and life in general.

As to why taller people should have an edge over the rest of us, researchers have proposed a few fascinating theories. One suggests that taller people pick up more social skills while in their teens.

Scientists found that a person’s height in adolescence was much more meaningful for their adult career than their current height. They drew their data from the UK’s National Child Development Survey and National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. To make sure professional success could not be explained by gender or race, the researchers focused on white men, about 4,000 of whom reported their height at different ages in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. They were also asked to report their salaries in their 30s.

For the NCDS participants, only height at age 16 predicted salaries in the 30s; for the NLSY participants, only height between ages 16 and 23 did.

To understand why, the researchers ruled out a number of possibilities by controlling for variables such as family background and health. Instead, they determined the link had to do with the fact that taller teens were more likely to participate in social activities such as athletics, school clubs and dating. In doing so, they accumulated “productive human capital such as social adaptability” that would help them achieve success down the line.

Intelligence based

Further research suggests taller people are more intelligent. Scientists found that height predicted success, even among three-year-olds. They drew data from a number of British and US longitudinal surveys, including the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study of almost 5,000 participants born in US cities between 1998 and 2000. According to the paper, a possible explanation for the link between height and cognitive ability is that certain biological growth factors, such as the thyroid hormone, stimulate growth and neural development.

I also found a suggestion that taller children were fed better. Because nutrition affects how you grow, as well as the development of your cognitive and non-cognitive skills, researchers believe it is the key factor linking height and success.

Finally, many researchers say our tendency to think of leaders as being tall is down to evolution. Back in our caveman days, we selected tall, strapping people to lead the tribe because they could physically defend us, and that preference prevails today.

If you have read this and, like me, do not fit the image of a typical successful business leader, may I offer some comfort by means of this list of ‘intelligent’ personality traits recently published by the Daily Mail:

  • you are left-handed
  • you are messy
  • you swear a lot
  • you are funny
  • you stay up late
  • you did not have sex in your teens
  • you are a worrier
  • you are modest
  • you are a cat person
  • and you are an older sibling.

Clare Jupp is director of people development at Brightstar

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