Can the Width of a CEO’s Face Affect His Firm’s Performance?

Choosing a CEO is difficult. You need to evaluate a candidate’s education, work experience, market knowledge, technological savvy, and social skills. Now new research  points to yet another quality that must be evaluated when considering a male candidate: Face width.

Although links between psychological characteristics and leadership success have been well established, research has yet to identify any objective physical traits of leaders that predict organizational performance. In the research reported here, we identified leaders’ facial structure as a specific physical trait that correlates with organizational performance. Specifically, we found that firms whose male CEOs have wider faces (relative to facial height) achieve superior financial performance. Decision-making dynamics within a firm’s leadership team moderate this effect, such that the relationship between a given CEO’s facial measurements and his firm’s financial performance is stronger in firms with cognitively simple leadership teams.

At first glance this seems like a classic “correlation does not equal causality” study, but the researchers make a fairly convincing case for the causal nature of the connection. First, they review research establishing links between wider faces and aggression, and aggression and feelings of power. They then hypothesize that because high-power individuals are more likely to note opportunities and see the big picture, they may make better CEOs. Finally, the researchers find that when CEOs are in teams of “low-cognitive-complexity” — i.e. where there is more deference to authority — the effect of face width on company performance is much stronger. In other words, in situations where the increased aggressiveness associated with a wide face can have a stronger effect on company performance, wide faces do in fact have a stronger effect on company performance.

The study seems like a good fit for the “neat, but not very significant” file, but there is one important implication: Newt Gingrich’s jowls are now a huge asset.
Wong, E., Ormiston, M., & Haselhuhn, M. (2011). A Face Only an Investor Could Love: CEOs’ Facial Structure Predicts Their Firms’ Financial Performance Psychological Science, 22 (12), 1478-1483 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611418838

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