Do Physical Traits Shape Leadership Ability?

I was browsing the internet the other evening, as one does when procrastinating on Accounting homework, and I came across an interesting link. It was an online collection of art pieces by Argentinian artist Alejandro Almaraz titled Portraits of Power. This is a collection of 15 digitally created works whereby Almaraz blended together the portraits of different world leaders, each individual piece is a compilation of a country’s leaders within a certain time period. For instance, the 3rd work in the installation is a mash-up of the portraits of all United States presidents from the years 1960 to 2008. The 8th work uses the same technique but for all of the men who ever lead the Soviet Union. Aside from being creative art pieces, all of the works in Portraits of Power have something in common: they all seem to create an eerily similar face, or all of the leaders in a work make the face of what could be their shared relative. This got me thinking: if all of these leaders within certain time periods in certain nations share some physical qualities, does that mean that having those qualities in question make you more likely to become a leader? While I was unfortunately unable to find a conclusive answer, I discovered some findings that made me to believe that the idea isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Almaraz’s 2nd piece in the collection features all of the U.S. presidents from 1789-1889, a 100 year span

The first physical characteristic that I looked into was probably the most obvious one to begin examining: height. Aside from being the characteristic that can make someone the most physically dominating in a room, height has been consistently shown in statistical data to be a correlative feature among leaders. Among the general population, 3.9% of people are 6 feet 2 inches or taller. However, among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 30% of them are that height or above (“The Look Of A Leader | The Economist”). Height isn’t just prominent among industry leaders either, it extends to political leaders as well. Across time, average height of the presidents within a century have been greater than the average height for the general populations of each century. In terms of average male height, it was approximately 5′ 3.5″ in the 1800’s, 5′ 9″ in the 1900’s, and 5′ 10″ in the 2000’s (Kennedy). The average presidential height for each century was larger, approximately 5′ 10″ in the 1800’s, 6′ 0″ in the 1900’s, and 5′ 11″ in the 2000’s (Papathanassiou). Unfortunately for you shorties out there, it looks like being on the shorter end puts you at a bit of a disadvantage. Yet sometimes like many musicians, it’s not about the look of the leader, but the sound of one.

The quality of one’s voice has been found to be an important component in one’s appearance as a leader. Many of us have heard that having a deeper voice, whether that be for men or women, makes someone more memorable and more attractive (PsyBlog). Aside from being more successful in your love life, deeper voices are also very helpful in the business world. Researchers from UC San Diego and Duke University listened to presentations for investors from 792 male CEOs, and found that those whose voices are on the deeper end of the spectrum made about $187,000 more per year than the average CEO (“The Look Of A Leader | The Economist”). Now things are really starting to look good for all of you height-gifted baritones out there, however in my Management 301 class I learned about another, unexpected factor that can play potentially a role in your leadership ability: handedness.

(clockwise from top left) Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford all sign legislation using their left hands

(clockwise from top left) Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford all sign legislation using their left hands

Good news for the 12% of you out there who are left-handed, because you may be more likely to become the President of the United States over right-handed folks. Five of the last seven presidents have all been southpaws, or have dominate left hands (“Odds Are Next U.S. President Will Be Left-Handed | Toronto Star”). So for the last 7 presidents that means 71.4% of them were lefties, a big difference when looking at the general population. No real explanation can be given for why there seems to be a trend for left-handedness among presidents, I believe that it may appear more formal when the cameras are facing them but I don’t have any research to back this theory. Until then, the southpaws reading may want to look towards a career in politics.

In the animal kingdom, those animals whose physical presence is the most frightening tends to be the top of the food chain. In the world of leadership, whether it be in business or government, physical dominance also seems to have a large part in how successful you are. I know that this blog post may be sad to read for those of you who are short, have high voices, are right-handed, etc. But fear not, my advice is to keep your backs tall and speak confidently wherever you go, maybe you can help in eliminating this bias towards the more physically prominent so everyone can be a leader, no matter the look.


“10 Ways Your Voice Influences Other Minds – Psyblog”. PsyBlog. N.p., 2013. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

“Alejandro Almaraz / Portraits Of Power”. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

Kennedy, Rita. “The Average Height Of Humans Over Time”. LIVESTRONG.COM. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

“Odds Are Next U.S. President Will Be Left-Handed | Toronto Star”. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

Papathanassiou, Manolis. “USA Presidents – Height & Weight”. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

“The Look Of A Leader | The Economist”. N.p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

(The first photo comes from Alejandro Almaraz’s Portraits of Power)

Presidential Signatures Collage:


3 thoughts on “Do Physical Traits Shape Leadership Ability?

  1. Marielle Concetta Ravally

    Let me start off by saying I really enjoyed your post. The trends in qualities of leaders was never something I thought about before, but now that the point was raised I definitely do notice your posts in society. I did have one problem with your research though. In your statistics you compared traits such as average height and handedness of CEOs to that of the general population. However to get more accurate research I believe you need to separate your comparisons by gender. This is because even today there are still an undeniable bias towards men in the business world. According to a 2014 Fortune article, only 5.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. Though I hope that one day this percentage will be closer to 50%, right now the skew towards male CEOs has to have us change our data collection process.

    Fortune Article (2014):

    1. Robert McCarthy Post author

      Thanks for the input! I tried to get as much data as I could including women in the workforce/government, it’s a sad notion but due to the overabundance of males in leadership positions I didn’t have much to work with on this hypothesis. Maybe physical traits also attribute to gender bias, and males are more likely to be leaders based on the physical qualities they have.

  2. Hannah Marni Stern

    I thought this was extremely interesting!! I had never put together all of these qualities that are so common in leaders. Although technicalities such as being left handed somewhat seems too specific to not be attributed to chance, you never know! No matter what you look like, I believe every inspiring leader should watch this: This TED Talk is something I strongly live by and enjoy.

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