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March 1st, 2017

Our Perceptions of What a Leader Should Be


Previously, our blog covered the fact that there are gaps everywhere when talking about gender. This week we look at how preconceived notions of “role congruity” can affect the way leadership capabilities of men and women are perceived.


Stereotypical traits of Leaders

When researching this post, it became quite apparent that there are certain traits that occur at a higher frequency in leaders than in the general population. Features such as height, physical prowess, tone of voice, and posture are all used to unconsciously judge leadership abilities.

To lay out some of the more striking stats:

          $187, 000 a year more than the average CEO.


These results aren't so surprising when you look to the animal world and see that things aren’t so different, with the biggest and strongest – typically male – being in charge of a group. What is remarkable, is that humans no longer rely on strength and stature to protect and lead, and diversity at all levels of organizations is being actively promoted and encouraged. Yet, the vast majority of leaders still conform to the stereotype, and many men and women continue to have this image of who a leader is in their heads.


When These Traits Backfire

The perceived effectiveness of managers can be as important as their actual leadership abilities or business results. There is also an expectation that a person will act a certain way based on their gender. When these expectations of role congruity are not met, leadership ability can wane in the eyes of others, regardless of the leader’s actual efficacy.

There are a number of traits that when displayed by a man, it’s seen as a plus, but when it’s displayed by a woman, it is often a negative. For example, men and women can exhibit the same results and accomplishments, but if they both act assertively, women are viewed to be less effective because it is a typically male trait.

The adjectives describing the same action in both a man and woman often also change subtly, with positive and negative connotations appearing. Men are seen as assertive and dedicated, while women are pushy and stubborn.

Because of this, women executives need to be exceptionally aware of their own leadership styles and strengths in order to be successful.

There is a second downside and it affects both men and women. Locke and Anderson (2014) write, “It was found that people participated less in a discussion when they interacted with a powerful individual who exhibited confidence [confident nonverbal demeanor including physical stature, posture, eye-contact, tone of voice] than when a powerful individual did not exhibit confidence.” People even deferred to the powerful individual who portrayed these traits when they were in fact no more competent than the rest of the group and their ideas weren't actually good ones, leading to suboptimal outcomes.


Stereotypes of Non-leaders

Stereotypes go the other way as well, and there are qualities that can - all too often - render someone incapable of leadership in some minds. And unsurprisingly, it turns out they are the opposite of the traits discussed above.

Those who lack an imposing, fit stature in either height or weight, or who habitually end sentences on a high note as though asking a question (“uptalk”) are all too frequently judged as inadequate for the role of leader before past experience or education is even considered.



Bias also plays a role. We tend to unconsciously agree with, and seek out those who are members of our in-group. So even if we are presented with a multitude of candidates, with perfect resumes, hiring teams continue to select those who look or sound remarkably like themselves. Taking this into account, and considering the current ratio of men to women in leadership roles, it is no wonder that the gap is so slow to close.


One would hope that leadership is an endeavor that is based on merit, and that our leaders are chosen and followed based upon their abilities and characteristics rather than anything as shallow as how they appear. Yet the evidence points overwhelmingly to the contrary. Individuals who exude a confident nonverbal demeanor through their physical stature, and tone of voice, etc. are more likely to attain positions of status and power than others, even when it is unwarranted.

Being aware of this phenomenon can aid in the gap in perceptions of gender efficacy, and increasing participation in collaborative settings, ultimately increasing the overall performance of organizations.










Sources used for this post:

Akst, D. (2017). The Appearance of Physical Strength May Be the Look of Leadership. WSJ. Retrieved 20 February 2017, from

Brodwin, E. (2016). What Your Appearance Says About Your Leadership Skills and 10 Other Traits. Retrieved 17 February 2017, from

Dishman, L. (2014). The Gender Divide And The Traits Of Effective Leadership: Who Comes Out On Top? | Fast Company | The Future Of Business. Fast Company. Retrieved 13 February 2017, from

Gaskell, A. (2016). What We Think Leaders Should Look Like (And Why It Matters). Retrieved 10 February 2017, from

Judge, T. A., Piccolo, R. F., & Kosalka, T. (2009). The bright and dark side of leader traits: A review and theoretical extension of the leader trait paradigm. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 855-875.

Locke, C. & Anderson, C. (2015). The downside of looking like a leader: Power, nonverbal confidence, and participative decision-making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 42-47.

Olivola, C., Eubanks, D., & Lovelace, J. (2014). The many (distinctive) faces of leadership: Inferring leadership domain from facial appearance. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 817-834.

The Look of a Leader. (2014). Retrieved 17 February 2017, from

The 'Masculine' and 'Feminine' Sides of Leadership and Culture: Perception vs. Reality - Knowledge@Wharton. (2005). Knowledge@Wharton. Retrieved 14 February 2017, from