Lincoln, Washington, You – stature and leadership


To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s height got to do with it?”  Well, it seems like a lot.  When George Washington at 6’1″ served as first president he was literally a head taller than many of his cohorts: John Adams was 5’7″ and James Madison a diminutive 5’4″.  (Independence Hall in Philadelphia has a wonderful exhibit that lets you walk among these historically huge, yet physically small icons!)   Abraham Lincoln stood about 6’4″, tied, to this day, for tallest U.S. President (LBJ was also 6’4″). Their stature was not only mythic. Their stature was real.

Note to women: Yes, a lot of today’s RFL is about men.  I’ll share a little about women and seek your input towards the end of today’s column.

It turns out that presidents and foreign leaders are routinely well above average in height, and studies have demonstrated that height affects income as much as race and gender (a 5’6″ man can expect to earn over $5000 less per year on average than a 6-footer). A Fortune survey found CEO’s average 6-foot — rising 2-1/2 inches above the average male.  Many have asked why, and persuasive arguments line up around evolutionary psychology.  It’s argued that for millennia, size meant advantages in protection as well as mate selection, and these are the most basic drives of all living things, to be safe and to extend themselves forward. Tall was good. Tall was front and center.

As with so many things, there appears to be a reinforcing loop:  groups seem to turn to tall men (again, the longitudinal studies I’ve seen so far are largely about men), and the loop begins:  tall men get the message, “people are looking to me,” and they thus often play the part, speak forcibly, getting more attention, etc.  One of the most fascinating dives into the data suggests that the biggest driver between height and income is not adult height, but is instead a boy’s height in mid-teens.  Thus, tall sixteen yearolds, whether they grow to 5’10” or 6’10” have demonstrably higher incomes, while boys who were smaller at 16 but later grew to be tall, did not gain the same income benefit.*

Besides, idle captivation, I have two suggestions and one query about all this.  Suggestion (1) Rise to your full stature if you want to be treated as having stature (i.e., having your opinion treated as worth listening to). This applies to women as much as men.  As you stand, and especially in new circumstances or meetings, stand like a general (male or female) or a dancer (male or female). See if standing tall doesn’t (a) make you feel more authoritative, and (b) change how people view you.  On the other hand, I suggest:  (2) Screw evolution! Pardon my language, but I don’t believe (perhaps my bias as a guy on the shorter side of average) that size matters for much at all outside the jungle. Do you? Okay, there may be a confidence factor demonstrated by that once-tall  high school sophomore (and yes, I am jealous of my tall son!).  But how important is confidence really; compared to, say  intellect, honesty, kindness, or vision? And can’t confidence as easily become over-confidence?  

The query I have is how do you perceive the importance of different elements of stature for men and women and whether they’re different. Does size matter?  If so, how?  I have a two-question survey that I think will interest you – as a respondent and to immediately see the results.  Can you help me inquire of that ancestral part of our brain, that pre-conscious part of our brain which makes important instinctual decisions?  In two weeks I’d like to return to this topic, looking at the results and focusing in on the implications of this stature question – and looking a little closer at the implications for women.  I would love any comments you can share…before or after you take the survey.  

Lead with your most presidential self!


* I found much of the data for this column from Professor Gregg Murray of Texas Tech.  If you’d like to read more, check out his blog “Caveman Politics,” at the Psychology Today site.

  • I like the reference you made to posture, Dan, and wonder – what if our conversation was about posture vs. height which we have much more control over. 😉 I also wonder what other research has been done into other aspects of charisma that made these presidents great leaders, and if height just happens to be something they have in common… For your readers looking for specific ways to improve posture, here’s a great TED talk on the subject:

  • Dan,
    Thank you for column, as always. You constantly get me thinking about new perspectives. May I offer another view on this issue—and some data? While my coauthor, Barry Posner, and I haven’t included height in our studies of demographic variables, we have studied nine others, including age, gender, nationality, education, function, etc. We have found conclusively and consistently that all demographic variables combined account for only 0.2%—that’s not a typo it’s two tenths of one percent!—of why leaders are effective and why people are engaged in their work. On the other hand, a leader’s behavior, as measured by The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, accounts for about 28% in the United States and up to 40% in some countries. Perhaps height makes a difference in the power game of leadership—or in sports such as basketball—but it definitely does not give men or women an advantage in leadership performance. What matters is what you do as a leader. Period.

  • Dan,
    Nice take on the height angle of leadership, and thanks for your interest in this work. As a political scientist, my research in this area began from asking why on earth people would subject themselves to running for public office? I think Jim Kouzes is right in his comment; height probably has little impact on actual leader effectiveness (although it would be interesting to test experimentally). But it does seem to have something to do with who decides to “throw their hat in the ring,” or leader emergence. In a democratic system many people can run, but very few do, and one factor we suggest is the feedback loop you reference: people treat somebody like a leader and next thing you know s/he is confidently stepping forward to compete for the position.

    I think Catherine Joun is onto something also regarding posture. Some research shows it’s very easy to change people’s feelings of powerfulness (with ramifications for leadership) simply by manipulating their posture in a social interaction. I recently ran across an overview of this research in a book called “The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure” by I.H. Robertson (2012).

    Keep up the interesting work!

  • Gregg and Jim,
    I’m honored to have you commenting on this site. Jim, I agree wholeheartedly about leadership in the long haul: height is of little significance. I like to distinguish authority from leadership* and this column and the survey were intended to get at authority…and short term grants of authority. Who will people pay attention to (whether they’re led well or badly) — at least for some time? And I am convinced that Gregg is on to something when he looks to our instinctual evolutionary biases. I’m not saying people ONLY give you and Barry Posner credibility because you’re tall :-), but I am suggesting it gives an initial step-up. And I am highly intrigued by Gregg’s insights around the feedback loop and how men and tall men may self-select themselves for roles of authority.
    I have long known in politics that many men readily put themselves forward, while many women instinctively hold back and must be asked even begged to run. I believe this is indicative of these ancestral (as Gregg calls them) inclinations. Today’s unscientific sample survey, at quick glance, reveals some of the ancestral bias we would expect, especially and I’d add unfortunately, as between men and women. Seemingly irrelevant characteristics tend to have us pay attention to men more than those same effects have us positively attend to women; likewise women seem to be punished more for seemingly negative attributes. Looking forward to slicing the data.
    Thanks again for weighing in!
    * I owe debt to Ron Heifetz for pushing the authority/leadership distinction.

  • If using these same factors for both men and women, I think “attractiveness” might be a more useful word than “handsomeness”.

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