Forget sharp suits and shoulder pads—good leaders should only look like their staff

May 16, 2017, University of Exeter
Forget sharp suits and shoulder pads—good leaders should only look like their staff
Forget sharp suits – for most employees the ideal leader actually looks exactly like themselves. Credit: University of Exeter

Forget sharp suits and shoulder pads – for most employees the ideal leader actually looks exactly like them, not the designer-clad employer often portrayed in TV or films, according to a new study.

Academics from the University of Exeter Business School and the Bradford University School of Management asked to choose photos of models who looked like excellent, average and mediocre leaders. The academics wanted to find out if and how people judged their leadership qualities of their bosses based on their appearance. The results showed everyone had a completely different view of what a leader looked like. This puzzled the experts, until they realised it showed people unknowingly draw on their own-self-image because nobody has a clear idea of what a leader should actually look like, or what personality they should express.

Dr Sarah Gilmore, from the University of Exeter Business School, said: "When we looked at how people described themselves and compared it with how they described leaders, we found their 'ideal' or 'excellent' leader was a mirror image of themselves'.

"So those we surveyed who were fans of lipstick and nail varnish said an ideal leader would look very feminine, and those who favoured a masculine look described someone who was more of a tomboy. Those who thought discipline was a good thing chose people who looked commanding, and those who valued enthusiasm chose someone who looked enthusiastic. The interesting thing is, none of this was immediately apparent until we dug deep into our analysis – certainly our interviewees were very unaware of what they were doing!'

"This shows in the absence of any clear idea of what a leader should look like, the best way to be the best one is to just be yourself."

The 20 people who took part in the in-depth interviews had been on leadership development programmes or described themselves as leaders. Interviews lasted up to an hour and a half and included questioning on their career history. Participants were asked to think about two excellent, two average and two poor leaders they have worked with and describe their appearance. They were then given 50 photographs cut from newspapers and magazines, of 25 men and 25 women in suits and less formal dress, covering all ages, sizes and ethnicities. The interviewees were asked to choose two photographs of people they thought looked like ideal, mediocre and poor and explain their choices. They were also asked what they would say to these people.

Explore further: Abusing power hurts leaders, too

Related Stories

Abusing power hurts leaders, too

May 9, 2017

We know that power can corrupt, making people act in ways that harm others. But new research from the University of Florida shows that when the powerful misbehave, they hurt themselves, too.

Reading the face of a leader

May 11, 2016

Women (but not men) with both high and low facial masculinity are perceived as competitive leaders, finds new study co-authored by a Cambridge Judge Business School academic.

Physician leadership training may help counteract burnout

May 5, 2016

(HealthDay)—Physician leaders with good leadership qualities are more likely to have employees who are satisfied and do not show signs of burnout, according to a study published in the April issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings ...

Recommended for you

NASA instruments image fireball over Bering Sea

March 22, 2019

On Dec. 18, 2018, a large "fireball—the term used for exceptionally bright meteors that are visible over a wide area—exploded about 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the Bering Sea. The explosion unleashed an estimated 173 ...

Paleontologists report world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex

March 22, 2019

University of Alberta paleontologists have just reported the world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex and the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Canada. The 13-metre-long T. rex, nicknamed "Scotty," lived in prehistoric Saskatchewan ...

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.