Faces of Success: You Can Judge a Leader's Appearance
BY Eric Markowitz
Science says that people read a lot about a person just by looking at their face.
How much can you learn about a leader by simply looking at him or her? More than you might think, according to Nicholas Rule, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who studies the accuracy of facial perception.
In 2008, Rule and co-author Nalini Ambady published a seminal paper called "The Face of Success: Inferences From Chief Executive Officers' Appearance Predict Company Profits." They presented undergraduates with unidentified headshots of CEOs from the top and bottom 25 companies on the 2006 Fortune 500, which ranks the 500 largest U.S. corporations by revenue.
Subjects were asked to rank the faces on a series of subjective qualities, such as competence and likability. Overwhelmingly, the leaders who scored highest by these measures turned out to run the most profitable companies.
In 2011, Rule carried out a similar study using college yearbook pictures of the top U.S. lawyers. Complete strangers were able to predict which lawyers ended up in charge of the country's most profitable law firms. He then repeated the study with 20 female CEOs on the Fortune 1000. Once again, Rule found a direct correlation between leadership ratings and corporate profits.
Ultimately, it comes down to the familiar tension between nature and nurture. "Dominance is something we're really good at picking up," says Rule. "It's difficult to find the causality, but it might be that their face causes them to become that person."
None of this means that having a dominating appearance will make you a smarter or a more successful entrepreneur. It also doesn't prove that CEOs of more profitable companies are naturally better leaders. However, it might help explain why they got their jobs in the first place.
Can you guess which of the CEOs in the image above piled up the biggest profits--just by looking at their faces? Chances are, you can.
IMAGE: Getty (13); A–L: Daniel Acker; Scott Olson; Nicholas Roberts; Chris Warde-Jones; Alex Wong; Jim Watson; Andrew Harrer; NFL; Mark Wilson; Pierre Verdy; Ronda Churchill; Andrew Harrer; DNA: Pasieka
From the June 2013 issue of Inc. magazine
ERIC MARKOWITZ reports on start-ups, entrepreneurs, and issues that affect small businesses. Previously, he worked at Vanity Fair. He lives in New York City. @EricMarkowitz