Studies show that leaders are more likely to be taller than average. Previous research revealed the perceptions of leadership qualities, such as persuasiveness, that are more easily assigned to taller men, which may explain their success. New research from the Stockholm School of Economics points to new reasons for the correlation. One revealing result: half of the tall leaders owe their managerial positions to their cognitive (intelligence) and non-cognitive (e.g. motivation or persistence) ability, indicating that a correlation between height and ability may explain the preponderance of tall leaders.
Tall men have a greater chance of becoming leaders. As unfair as this may seem, and despite the obvious exceptions from Napoleon to CEO superstar Jack Welch, decades of research have consistently borne out the fact that men in leadership positions — from U.S. presidents to CEO’s — are likely taller than average. Additional research reveals some of the reasons behind the trend, notably that taller people are seen as more persuasive, impressive and capable. Several recent studies have even found a correlation between height and intelligence.
Erik Lindqvist of the Stockholm School of Economics drills down into some of the factors that might explain this surprising correlation. Using Swedish government data including military enlistment data, Lindqvist explores the influence of health status, physical endurance, cognitive and noncognitive ability, and self-selection (in other words, do tall people aspire to leadership roles) in his analysis of height and managerial positions.
His analysis confirms previous research in some areas while illuminating some of the nuances of conventional wisdom:
Height is correlated to leadership. Lindqvist’s data shows a strong correlation between height and the likelihood of achieving managerial positions. An increase in height by 10 centimetres (3.94 inches) leads to a 2.2 percentage points increase in the probability that the individual is in a managerial position.. For a man of average height (1.79 meters or 5 feet 10 inches), this translates into a 27% increase in the likelihood of holding a managerial position for every additional 10 centimetres of height.
Ability plays a major role. Controlling for both cognitive and noncognitive ability reduces the height-leadership correlation by a significant 50%. Cognitive ability refers to thinking abilities, such as the ability to understand technical instructions. Two of the cognitive tests for Swedish enlisted men involve synonyms and inductions. Non-cognitive ability relates more to the psychological character traits of the individual, such as willingness to assume responsibility, independence, emotional stability and persistence. Thus a strong correlation between height and ability greatly explains the height-leadership correlation.
Physical fitness does not have an impact. Some researchers have hypothesized that physical fitness more than simply height can explain the correlation between height and leadership. Lindqvist’s data does not support this assertion.
There are a number of studies that have revealed the advantages of certain physical characteristics, including voice pitch and facial features (see ‘More Like This’ section below), for ambitious people looking to reach powerful leadership positions, especially in business.
That said, corporate board members, business owners and other talent recruiters must take care in attaching too much importance to such physical characteristics, including height. One of the most-respected CEOs in history is the legendary but diminutive Jack Welch of GE.
One danger is to allow height or any other physical characteristic, such as attractiveness, to reduce the impact of a more substantial deciding factor, such as past accomplishments. This may occur is one assumes that physical characteristics played in a role in the success of a role model. One of the revelations of Lindqvist’s research is that the success of half of the tall men in his study could be attributed to cognitive and non-cognitive ability, which are essential to leadership.
Nevertheless, the height correlation should not necessarily be ignored. A tall person might be more convincing as a leader, and thus able to convince others to follow his or her lead. The perception of others is, after all, central to the effectiveness of a leader. Height can play a role in that perception, if only a minor one compared to other abilities.
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