Are leaders born or made?

It’s been a debated question for a long time, and while it doesn’t generate the same heat that it once did, it might be fun to pose the question to undergraduate students who are getting their first exposure to leadership theory. Grizzled veterans of the leadership game know that leadership is a learned behavior forged from the combination of experience, support, and training.

At CCL we might as well have a sign on the lawn that says ‘leaders made here.’ And yet, along with all we know about how leaders are made, we can’t deny that some are born with certain advantages. There is one specific advantage some are born with that we were able to clearly comprehend even at the tender age of 5 years old.

The advantage is height.

My colleague, Michael Campbell, and I have found the research on height fascinating.

Several studies indicate that taller men are more likely to be successful and that they earn bigger paychecks. In one study, each inch in height amounted to nearly $800 more a year in pay. The average height of US Presidents is, at 5 ft 11 in, about two inches taller than the average man. Corporate CEOs also tend to be taller and a quick look through CCL’s leader database of 4600 senior executives confirm that senior executives also stand taller than the norm.

So how can those who don’t tower over the masses overcome this apparently innate (born) disadvantage? As with many other facets of leadership, your behavior plays a key role in how you are perceived.

Lara Tiedens, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, has done extensive research on the ways executives acquire status. According to Tiedens, people often use height, or an inflated appearance of height, to look more powerful. Leaders who look directly at others, use an open stance and vigorous gestures, speak loudly in a deep voice, and lean in close are perceived by others as more competent.

Tieden’s research has also shown that women can mitigate the potentially negative consequences of  behaving in a more traditionally male mode by pairing assertive speech with a concern for the relationship and a sense of liking people.

So we’d like to hear from you. What physical characteristics do you associate with leadership?

– Corey Criswell

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