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The leadership advantage that a ripped upper body brings

Max Lin 2016-12-29 14:21:58

Vanity might not be the only reason ambitious young males obsess about their physique. They may be taking a calculated step towards leadership.

A recent study suggests that people equate physical strength in men with higher status and leadership qualities. Researchers showed participants photographs of young men and women dressed in undershirts to show off their shoulder, chest and arm muscles.

Participants were told that the people were recruits at a consulting firm. They were asked to rate how much they admired them, held them in esteem and believed they would rise in status. “Do you think this person is a good leader?” was one of the questions.

In an academic version of the children’s game Tops and Tails, the researchers Photoshopped the images, switching the bodies and heads and manipulating heights, to take account of the possibility that results could be skewed by how tall or attractive the subjects were. Participants consistently rated stronger men more highly for status and leadership qualities. When the pictures were of women, it made little difference whether the subjects were stronger or weaker.

The research, soon to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, seems to endorse Vladimir Putin’s habit of flaunting his physique or Donald Trump’s publication of his doctor’s opinion of his “extraordinary” physical strength. It also adds to a rich vein of work on the physical characteristics of business executives.

A 2004 paper, for instance, looked at research on height and found that tall individuals have an advantage in their careers, with six-footers earning almost $166,000 more over 30 years than someone standing only 5 feet 5 inches. Warwick Business School research last year indicated that men who rise highest in business, the military and sport share common facial features.

Other researchers have noted a link between upper-body strength and status in indigenous Bolivian people, but, happily, we do not get to see many chief executives undressed, so it is hard to assess whether the same applies in the boardroom.

Those executives who admit to a serious workout regime, or who projected a public image of physical strength, have a mixed record. Carsten Kengeter, a broad-shouldered extreme skier who “likes nothing better than a weekend of marathon running in the Mont Blanc massif”, looks set to take his leadership of Deutsche Börse through the pain barrier with a merger with the London Stock Exchange. Gavin Patterson’s leonine appearance — regularly referenced by reporters — has not hindered his rise to the top of BT, the UK telecoms group.

On the other hand, in 2012, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg — then 87 — boasted to the Financial Times of his weightlifting prowess. It is doubtful if this would have saved AIG, the insurer he used to run, from bailout.

Thor Björgolfsson wears “sculpted suits” and works out regularly, according to a recent profile “because it teaches self-discipline and pushes one to the limit”. Fellow investors in Landsbanki, the collapsed Icelandic bank where he was the major shareholder, might have hoped for more self-discipline sooner in his career.

The paper is called “The role of physical formidability in human social status allocation”, a title that risks having sand kicked in its face by more muscular headlines.

Aaron Lukaszewski of Oklahoma State University, who carried out the study with co-authors from University of California Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and University of Portland, has a word of caution for any leader tempted to throw his weight around. “Self-interested aggressiveness decreased men’s projected status,” he says.

Mr Putin and Mr Trump, take note.

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