Senior lecturer: Appearances of leaders can be misleading

Does looking and sounding like a leader make someone a leader? 

No, but that might make someone more likely to be picked to be a leader, or perceived to be one. 

University of Portsmouth Business School senior lecturer Alex Tymon said people generally expect their leaders to exhibit certain outward qualities, such as being tall, conservative in appearance and have a deep voice. 

Ms Tymon made these statements Thursday during a presentation to the Cayman Islands Society of Human Resource Professionals at the group’s 10th annual conference. 

Drawing a picture 

To illustrate the concept of people’s implicit expectations, Ms Tymon had the audience break into groups and draw pictures of what they consider a leader to be. 

The results appeared to be consistent with the outcomes of Ms Tymon’s academic research, where she and colleagues have instructed many different groups of people to perform the same exercise. Generally, people depict a “leader” to be male and relatively large, and use metaphors and symbols to show relevant qualities. Followers – when they are even included – are typically smaller, generic and lined up like drones to follow the leader. 

To further support her points, Ms Tymon showed photos of groups of leaders – from the US Senate, European Union and G20 – where people appeared almost as “clones” of one another, being predominately male, conservatively dressed and of a similar age. Another example is that all US presidents since 1888 have been above average in height. 

She cited a series of other studies from 1994, 2004 and 2011 where people came up with similar descriptive for leaders, including sensitive, intelligent, dedicated, charismatic, strong, as well as highlighting negative traits such as “tyranny”. 


Pitfalls of assumption 

Those implicitly held views of common leadership traits contradict human resource professionals’ consciously constructed paradigms of what leadership structure should be like in the 21st century, with flatter organisations, less formal leaders, perhaps teams of leaders for large transnational entities, and where participatory leadership and “followership” should be of high importance. 

In addition, people still cling to the perception of the “romance of leadership”, giving a leader too much credit or blame for an organisation’s success or failure. 

She said implicit leadership theories have huge impacts on recruitment. 

“We might end up recruiting these clones who then will start recruiting people in their own likeness,” Ms Tymon said. 

She said, “There are issues for informal leaders who might be given power and influence within their organisation they don’t actually warrant.” If people are recruiting the wrong leaders based on their implicit assumptions, then businesses could be collectively wasting up to $30 billion a year on training the wrong people, she said. 

Additionally, measurement of leaders’ actual performance could be skewed by how well they match up to people’s implicit leadership theories. 

“Are we setting up some of these people to fail? We’re putting them in these positions, we’re suggesting they can deal with these things, and they actually might not be able to do it,” she said. 

With 60 per cent of people unhappy with the leadership in their companies, something isn’t being done right, she said. 

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