Leadership Attraction

Many individuals are reluctant to admit that a person’s appearance may influence how others perceive them as a leader. Let’s take a trip back to the future.

Spanning nearly two years, the 2008 presidential campaign was historical on several fronts. It was the longest presidential campaign and the most expensive in history. It was the first time that two US senators would run against each other and New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton was the first serious woman presidential candidate and Senator Barak Obama was the first African American nominated by a major party for president.

However, the Republican Party had a share of history also. The Republican ticket consisted of Arizona Senator John McCain, who sought to become the oldest person elected president to a first term in America, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who was to become the first woman vice president candidate for the Republican Party. On November 4, 2008, Obama became the first African American to become president.  Did Trait Theory play a part in his strategy?

Leadership characteristics are important factors in the presidency that many pragmatists dismiss. Trait Theory suggests that certain individuals possess special innate qualities that make them the preferred leader. Qualities, such as height, intelligence, extroversion, and other noble traits are components of Trait Theory (See Table 7.1 in Impending Danger). Focusing on the 2008 elections, some would argue that both McCain and Obama possessed leadership qualities and support Trait Theory. However, the question must be posed ‘Which candidate best benefited from the outward perception of what a leader should look like?”

First, physical characteristics are what most individuals see first. In this presidential election, some of the physical traits included height, age, and race. Some people have identified strong physical characteristics as a perquisite for leadership selection. This application can easily be seen in athletics and activities that require great physical ability. Obama hovered over McCain in terms of physical stature. Obama was thought to be 6 feet 1 inch while McCain was 5 feet 9 inches. Obama, being tall and sturdy, would overshadow a much shorter and frail McCain. In many people’s minds, the election was much more about optics than content in some cases.

For example, the presidential debates also demonstrated showmanship. Political organizers worried how their candidates would be viewed by the voters. Therefore, the style of the debate was always a strategic consideration for the McCain camp. This reality was a major concern to McCain’s campaign because of the public perception. Obama was noticeably taller. Two of the three presidential debates in the fall were seated debates, perhaps to neutralize Obama’s height advantage.

Race was the mysterious factor in the election. There was no consensus on the role of race with some experts concluding race would have a significant impact (the Bradley effect) while others predicted that Obama’s race would aid his candidacy given the guilt, sympathy, and compensatory factors for the legacy of racism.

 According to a CNN Exit Poll (16,000 participants) of the presidential election, twice as many of those polled said age was an important factor in their vote as those who indicated race. Specifically, 78% went for Obama to 21% for McCain among voters who thought age was important. However, individuals who said race was an important factor voted 55% to 44% in favor of Obama. However, Obama also was the winner for people who said race was not important.

Second, intrinsic character attributes were also a significant factor. Most people admitted that Obama had star power. He was able to bring record number of crowds to his rallies. Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell supported Obama which broke ranks from his Republican Party: “He has both style and substance. I think he is a transformational figure.”

Yet, both candidates attempted to frame their opponent in a character framework. Feeding on the perceived eloquence of Obama, McCain’s strategy was to paint Obama as a celebrity and elitist. Additionally, McCain tried to use Obama’s articulate speech and his charisma with his followers as void of any substance. Obama had his own method for framing McCain. Obama attempted to portray McCain as the third-term of President Bush.

Last, political strategists sought out ways to best showcase their candidate while highlighting any character flaws in the opposition. The results showed that voter perception counts. Obama was viewed as the agent of change while McCain was viewed as part of the current establishment. Given the fact that Obama won every major demographic in the election, Trait Theory may have played a role in the outcome of the election.

Does having good looks really matter in our PC culture? If so, why?  Is there any value in applying Trait Theory to 21st Century organizations?

© 2011 by Daryl D. Green

25 thoughts on “Leadership Attraction

  1. Traits do matter in every single way. While we may claim to be PC, most all of us fall into line with something because of the way it looks and how we feel when we buy it or support it. During the 2008 campaign, I believe people were engulfed by the excitement of what was happening. I also believe that as the younger candidate Obama possessed a more genuine connection with the voters, because of issues and topics in which he was able to closely relate with them. Recent studies show that traits are vital to an organization especially one which may feel the need to be pushed and energized, “The Big Five model is a comprehensive, empirical, data-driven research finding. Identifying the traits and structure of human personality has been one of the most fundamental goals in all of psychology. The five broad factors were discovered and defined by several independent sets of researchers.” This model goes on to explain that people with more exciting and open minded personalities are able to gain peoples trust and more likely influence others in the long run.
    Wikipedia. (2011, March). “Big Five personality traits” Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits

  2. The thought of trait theory has some definite merit in our successful leaders. Mark Shead had these thoughts:

    Leadership trait theory is the idea that people are born with certain character traits or qualities. Since certain traits are associated with proficient leadership, it assumes that if you could identify people with the correct traits, you will be able to identify leaders and people with leadership potential. Most of the time the traits are considered to be naturally part of a person’s personality from birth. From this standpoint, leadership trait theory tends to assume that people are born as leaders or not as leaders. There is a lot of value in identifying the character traits associated with leadership. It is even more valuable to identify the character traits that followers look for in a leader. These traits would be the characteristics of an individual who is most likely to attract followers.

    The top five traits are of successful leaders are:
    • Honest
    • Inspiring
    • Forward-Looking
    • Competent
    • Intelligent

    By focusing on your own character and developing traits associated with leadership, you can increase your ability to lead.

    Shead, Mark. Leadership Trait Theory. http://www.leadership501.com/leadership-trait-theory/22/

    Wikipedia.com. Retrieved 3/15/11 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trait_theory

  3. While looks did not influence my presidential selection in 2008, there are times when they do play a factor in my decision making process. I think that applies to not only humans but to items purchased. For me personally, looks play a huge part in my decision making process when I purchase shoes but not so much when I’m hiring a repair man.
    All individuals fall under this trap at some point in the decision making process. Looks determining a decision may not be the fairest practice but never the less it is still a factor. Sometimes looks can help and sometimes looks can hurt. Look at reported Alicia Booth from Charlotte, North Carolina. Her contract as Anchor Woman on the nightly news was not renewed because she was deemed too attractive. While the demotion seems unfair and probably leads the way to a lawsuit, the broadcasting station was more concerned with appealing to women viewers and felt Ms. Booth’s looks hurt their ability to appeal to this target audience (PBS).

    Works Cited
    PBS. (n.d.). Looks vs. Brains? Retrieved 3 15, 2011, from PBS: Local News: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/insidelocalnews/behind_looks.html

  4. Until we live in a society where “pretty people” aren’t idealized, then yes, looks do matter. From the time we are children we imagine that prettier people have better lives. In the article written by Bryan Smith for Men’s Health, he states, “Society praises vanity and everyone cares about their appearance. Study after study presented that better dressed, better looking and leaner people are typically paid more, promoted faster and rewarded with more positive evaluations” (Mitchell, 2009). “Another Yale 1992 study found attractive people are perceived as more sociable, dominate, intelligent, skilled, etc.” (Mitchell, 2009). Are our childhood biases far off? Not according to this article.

    While we may have made great progress in not discriminating against skin color, national origin, gender, etc., we are still behind the times. It is still, in the 21st century a valid case that in order to “get ahead” in the workforce and in society we need to continue worrying about our appearance. Therefore, it is imperative that we keep this at the forefront of our minds when trying to achieve our life’s goals.

    Mitchell, Jeffery. July 16, 2009. The Effect of Physical Apperance in the Workplace. Examiner.com. http://www.examiner.com/networking-in-chicago/the-effet-of-physical-appearance-the-workplace.

    March 15, 2011.

    • Although there are wide avenues to receive political news, a majority of voters choose the candidate who is relevant to themselves in some way. For example, age, race and physical appearance seem to have been deciding factors in 2008 more than political experience and leadership ability. Clearly, John McCain had the experience and track record in politics compared to Obama. Still, the American people were looking for a presidential figure they could relate to and be a shining symbol for America.
      If this is true in politics, surely it is similar in other fields, such as business. In an April, 2005 article, CNN Money stated, “After variables like education and experience are factored out, Fed researchers said the, “beauty premium exists across all occupations, and that jobs requiring more interpersonal contact have higher percentages of above-average-looking employees (CNN Money, 2005).” Where is there another position more contact driven than the office of the President of the United States? Although most would deny that physical appearance swayed their decision in 2008, if voters compared apples to apples regarding political experience, the election may have ended differently.
      CNN Money. April 11th, 2005. “Surprise. Pretty People Earn More.” Retrieved from: http://money.cnn.com/2005/04/08/news/funny/beautiful_money/#TOP

  5. The most recent presidential campaign was orchestrated to sell votes on superficial traits. I was insulted by the visual games. Maybe it’s an age thing, but a “physical trait” of goods looks or physical stature doesn’t have much context in my interpretation of the PC culture. Though the idea behind trait theory is “people are born with certain character traits or qualities (Shead), the presidential candidates were certainly trainable. Dispositions and tendencies may be inborn, but conditioning to the situation at hand can change character perceptions. The candidates were skillfully instructed on presentation to deliver a particular perception. Traits that have merit in our politically correct culture AND in Trait Theory leadership styles necessary for success in the 21st century include: enthusiastic personality, sincerity, demonstrated competence and intelligence, curiosity, respectable treatment of others, open-mindedness, and inspiring leadership through example. The looks thing doesn’t have substance in the end. Successful 21st century leadership will maximize the strengths of multiple leadership theories to meet the rapid fire change in all facets of business. The broad age range of the current workforce brings a broad interpretation of leadership trait characteristics.
    Shead, M. “Leadership Trait Theory”. http://www.leadership501. Retrieve Mar 15, 2001 from http://www.leadership501.com/leadership-trait-theory/22/htm.

    • Kim, WOW! You came out swinging eruditely!

      “The most recent presidential campaign was orchestrated to sell votes on superficial traits.”

      So…what does 2012 look like a repeat?

      • The American public is paying the price for be swept up in the name of change. The consequences have been monumental. 2012 should be another revolt from the public. The voters will not likely be so moved by demeanor and public presence, but will expect solid performance and content in the next round.

  6. Even in today’s culture, a person looks are still important in how they are perceived by the world around them especially in leadership. We all come with pre-conceived, particularly environmental, biases on what makes a person successful. What an individual wears, the body language they exhibit, and personal attributes all play an instrumental part in the value an organization can place on that person. As stated in the Academy of Management Executive, “Leaders who possess the requisite traits must take certain actions to be successful (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1991).” The simple act of having these traits does not guarantee that you will be a successful leader. These traits, however, do add great value to today’s organizations and combined with the leadership qualities of drive, a desire to lead, honesty and integrity, self confidence, cognitive ability and knowledge of the business core, a company can build a successful leadership team that will lead them into the future.

    Kirkpatrick, S, & Locke, E. (1991). Leadership: do traits matter?. Academy of Managment Executive, 5(2), 48-60

  7. Leadership trait theory is biased toward people being born as leaders, not made leaders. Looks matter to all people in our PC culture or any other culture. Common criticisms of trait theory center on the fact that traits are often poor predictors of behavior (Kendra Cherry). Even so, an individual with the right combination of leadership traits is likely to be the winner every time. In the last presidential election this tactic was used to win votes just like any other election. It is a combination of traits that you are born with and have learned that will make one the best leader, but in our busy, busy society campaign teams play on whatever strengths they can. They skirt around the depth of the real issues trying to make certain that they do not educate the public too much, but highlight the candidate’s looks. The goal of an election is to win. Ken Morrison of Dateline television show, “A person’s physical attractiveness impacts every individual literally from birth to death,” says Dr. Gordon Patzer, Dean of the College of Business Administration, Roosevelt University. He has spent most of his life dealing with studying people and physical attractiveness.”
    The Trait Theory of Personality by Kendra Cherryhttp://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/trait-theory.htmhttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3917414/ns/dateline_nbc/

  8. People say not judge a book by its cover, but is it not the cover that introduces us to the story? Let us be careful, however; the cover does not always correlate with the book’s perceived content.

    Dr. Glenn Boseman points to similar concerns pertaining to the observation of potential leaders. Citing revelations from previous research, he states, “[t]raits were found to be excellent predictors of leadership emergence rather than leadership effectiveness. This means that individuals who possess the defined traits are more likely to be perceived as leaders by others, but not that they are necessarily more effective leaders” (2008, p. 36).

    Such findings emphasize the importance of avoiding superficial assumptions and making well-informed decisions when engaging in leadership selection.

    Boseman, G. (2008). Effective Leadership in a Changing World. Journal of
    Financial Service Professionals, 62(3), 36. Retrieved from the EBSCO

  9. My apologies… The following should have concluded my blog:

    Our leaders define, not only who we are, but where we are going. In times such as these, properly weighing the issues has never been more important.

  10. If we admit it or if we agree with it, it doesn’t matter we have to face the truth, looks do matter. At the elections between Obama and McCain, at first look Obama appealed to the younger crowds because he was a young man, charismatic, cheerful and full of energy. He was one of us. You look at McCain, he is old, tired and past his time, he was our parents generation. People with out admitting it to them self looked at Obama and saw a young man with great future, first for his looks, then for his speeches, promises and the way he wanted to run the government. Even day to do activities, at a pickup basketball game for example, if you don’t know anyone at the court and you’re the captain you’re going to choice the tall player because you assume he is better, even though the short guy is a better player but first impression is very important.
    “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” which means you could lose this person’s business, you could lose your chance to date this person and you could never talk to this person ever again if you have a bad first impression.

    Christine, 08/29/2006 First Impression Quote 08/29/2006 Topic: Better Living.

  11. Physical appearance is a huge factor we use when identifying leadership qualities. This in combination with key personality traits composes what we envision as the ideal leader. Whether we like to admit it or not, great leaders have big personalities that can command the room. Americans love dominating and outgoing personalities, most likely because we are the most individualistic nation on Earth. We do not need to look for examples further than California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the top GOP candidates for the 2012 presidential election Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump. All three candidates are extremely outgoing, and all have had their own television shows. The Republican Party knows they need an engaging and dynamic personality to compete with talented orator Obama.
    Trait Theory can apply to our own organizations in that individuals with these mentioned personality traits usually assume the role as leader, even when no formal selection process has been implemented. Although these traits have been debated by academics, using the Five-Factor Theory of Personality, we identify leaders by:
    1. Extroversion
    2. Agreeableness
    3. Conscientiousness
    4. Neuroticism
    5. Openness

    Cherry, K. Trait theory of personality. About.com. Retrieved April 17, 2011, from http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/trait-theory.htm

  12. I 100% believe that appearances have to do with everything, especially leadership roles. It can be seen in everything that we do. For example, an order generation is more like to listen to a manager their own age, rather than a twenty-something, yet the twenty-somethings are supposed to listen to the older generation simply because they’re older and its an assumed legitimate power rather than referent power. In regards to trait theory being used today, ABSOLUTELY. It’s apparent in all forms of business. I actually did my senior paper in college on the men versus women in terms of sales especially concerning advertising. From the 12 business owners, consisting equally of men and women, most of their advertising purchases were from male sales reps even though none of them thought they chose one sex over the other more. The end result was that men seemed to be more confident and more affirmative in their wording and of their product than did women.

    Jones, G.R., & George, J.M. (2009). Contemporary management (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

  13. How many times have we heard the saying “You only have one chance to make a first impression”?

    Of course having good looks can really matter, even in our PC culture.

    ChangingMinds.Org identifies four traits where leaders’ successes or failures were attributed to:
    • Emotional stability and composure: Calm, confident and predictable, particularly when under stress.
    • Admitting error: Owning up to mistakes, rather than putting energy into covering up.
    • Good interpersonal skills: Able to communicate and persuade others without resort to negative or coercive tactics.
    • Intellectual breadth: Able to understand a wide range of areas, rather than having a narrow (and narrow-minded) area of expertise.

    Regardless of the candidate, it is natural to draw a conclusion or form an impression on a candidate based on these traits, especially when compared with a strongly contrasting candidate. It is our job to be sure to take into account stances on issues that we care about rather than merely on height and looks alone.

    Changing Minds. http://www.changingminds.org. 2002-2011.

  14. Children indoctrinated with political correctness don’t learn the sincere reality that people can be mean; They don’t discover a sense of self-worth, What they understand instead is that it is rewarding to play the role of the eternal victim. They begin to fear speaking what they believe to be true, to hide the authenticity of their thoughts behind a shield of political correctness. “the basic assumption is that if an individual possess certain traits – we have good leadership. This idea that certain traits are needed and if I do not have them, then I should look for those more gifted than I to take the lead, has caused many who would have pitched in to help lead, back away. Leadership, when conceptualized through a community lens, puts the concept “leadership” as being more global than the sum of its “leaders”. A viral flow is generated by those who are choosing to lead. It is the excitement and wave of energy and purpose created by a group of leaders who are committed to the work that pulls others in the community (including the formal leader) into the work of leadership”

    Lambert, L. (1998). Building leadership capacity in schools. Alexandria: ASCD

  15. There is much value in applying the trait theory to today’s organizations. Even though most organizations are in business to make a profit or name for themselves they are ran by people who in turn make the decisions. By researching your client or worker into what type of traits they have you can be better prepared in the decision they will make or how they will respond to change etc. In reference, Paul Bridle states; “It stands to reason that being a master of your craft means you need the best people. However, best is not simply technically the best, it also means the people that fit the organization culturally”.

    Bridle, P. (2010, March 15). Leadership Attraction- What Leadership Method Will You Employ?. In Change Board. Retrieved May 9, 2011, from http://www.changeboard.com/content/3154/Leadership-attraction—what-leadership-method-will-you-employ-/

  16. Good looks and physical attributes shouldn’t really be a big characteristic when it comes to presidential election but unfortunately it is one thing most people in today’s world see as what ought to be and how they can possibly define themselves from. imagine the amount of money people spend in plastic surgery to feel good or impress others, the concept of good looks, fancy unneeded houses , cars or jewelry , steroid etc…. we are first judged by our first impression and how we present ourselves. who to blame ? still remains a very divergent question. so traits do matter , we are all moved and driven by a vivid image of what we believe in physically. a 6’7 African-american with long hair baggy pants walking into a bank with a bag pack is most likely to be taken for a robber! an exercise trainer teaching how to lose weight if weighting 300 plus wouldn’t matter even if knowing what exactly he or she is talking about pointed in look is influential By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY is it the society or our own vision of what we made of our ourselves.
    traits are very valuable , its better to lead than manage :Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing and are our own image .the symbol of who we are — Warren Bennis, Ph.D. On Becoming a Leader

    essential life skills.net

    July 20, 2005

    Your appearance, good or bad, can affect size of your paycheck
    Growing research shows how you look is influential while lawsuits raise awareness
    By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY

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