BabyFaced Leader

It can be a blessing and it can be a curse but one thing is clear…a lacking grey haired leader is noticeable. Let’s be honest we all have a predisposed bias for the person at the top of the food chain to have some “Stress Hairs” on the scalp, it can be perceived as a sign of maturity and credibility. I’ll admit I have made interaction choices on whether or not I do business with someone based on the outer appearance…I fully admit and come clean with that admonition. What’s interesting about that subconscious/conscious admittance from me is that it comes from someone who has been possibly passed over because of that same bias, and that I actually look like my LinkedIn profile picture…YOUNG! I am not a spring chicken however those days are gone but proving I belong as a qualified subject matter expert in the subjects of “Leadership” & “Strategy” is often times brutally challenging and I’ve come to the conclusion photoshop can’t help that (lol!). So, I understand the young but gifted entrepreneur or the gray-less executive who can’t quite break the perception that they aren’t ready for prime time based on superficial biases. We’ve long believed that those who look like they’ve gone through as they say “Life” provide the priceless wisdom and educational value and I tend to accept that belief, but based on content…not perception. Some of the wisest advice I’ve received in my career came from those much younger than myself, however, had I not allowed myself to be open to their commentary because of biases towards their age and youthful appearance I would have missed out on personal & professional growth. Last year I had one of those epiphany moments regarding our obsession with how someone looks in relationship to their ability to lead, here’s a caption of post I submitted last year: “Looking Presidential”……is this REALLY important?

I’ve just listened to some folks on a recent internet radio show (internet radio is becoming the NEW medium) argue with each other over What/Who looks “Presidential”….I do wish I could have that 20 minutes back in my life. Now, I’m NOT naive to think there are people out there who place a tall priority on how someone looks regarding their leadership potential, but should that be a defining feature? I’m the first to admit that I believe in being polished and I try myself to project an image of maturity, capability, and competence however I also know that once I open my mouth if the articulation isn’t on point no one will care if I have a “Brooks Brothers” suit on. My issue is that we place way too much emphasis on this superficial observation and not on content/character.  I read a story a while back that talked about how President William Harding was a “Regal” figure and he primarily won the presidency based on his appearance as a tall distinguished looking man that some said just commanded a room whatever “commanding” the room means. Today presidential historians have said President Harding was one of our worst presidents…I guess you really can’t judge a book by its cover. I had to take a moment to scribble this quick blog entry and plead with those who read this article by saying sure it’s okay to examine one’s outer exterior as a 1st impression metric but NOT stop there when there’s more critical variables such as integrity, honesty, and importantly “COMPETENCY”!

Thanks for letting me vent!

“Looking Presidential”……is this REALLY important?


Content equals Competency

Absolutely, it isn’t fair to make a snap judgement on someone’s ability to lead based on how they look, however it’s up to us “Baby Faced Leaders” to ensure we get our content/competency out there whether it’s in writing or verbally. We’ve all heard the saying “Content is King” and I believe this mantra but it’s up to each one of us to put aside the obsolete traditional ways we look at “appearance leadership”, and focus on what’s coming out of the brain. As I’ve mentioned earlier I’m just as guilty as the next person in placing faith in an individual just because they have greyed temples, and now realizing that I’ve probably missed a lot of opportunities to work with some great people because of that ridiculous bias. Yet, determining whether or not someone succeeding in a leadership role based on outer appearance continues to go on even at the upper echelons of business. A wonderful article was published in Forbes (2009) by Robert W. Livingston “The Baby Faced Black CEO Phenomenon”, below are excerpts from the article:

More than 95% of the leaders of America’s 500 largest companies ranked by revenue are white and male. The dearth of minority representation in upper management has been attributed to a number of causes, including economic disadvantage, which limits access to the educational, cultural and social capital needed for getting up the corporate ladder, and majority groups clinging to social hierarchies that preserve their status, power and privilege, thus locking minorities out of positions of power. I recently conducted a study to find out what we can learn about the relatively few African-Americans who do manage to ascend to positions of senior leadership. Together with Nicholas Pearce, a Kellogg School of Management doctoral student, I asked a total of 127 non-black participants to rate photographs of some black and white chief executive officers from the 500 largest companies. We paired 10 black male CEOs with 10 white male CEOs who served before or after them at the same corporations. In addition, we included 10 white female CEOs paired with a random set of 10 white male CEOs. The participants were asked to rate all 40 CEOs on their appearance of interpersonal warmth and what we called “babyfaceness.” We allowed some of the participants to rate the photographs on a 1 to 4 scale based on their own subjective perception of what a baby face was. We gave others specific scientific definitions and a training session on what a baby face was before they did their ratings of each face on a 1 to 4 scale. The results were the same for both groups. Babyfaceness? It was our hypothesis that black leaders who are so successful must possess not only impeccable credentials, proven competence and tireless diligence, but also what we call “disarming mechanisms”–physical, psychological or behavioral traits that lessen perceptions of threat, fear, envy or resentment. Disarming mechanisms send a message: I am not a danger to you. I am not a barbarian breaching the gates of Rome. Disarming mechanisms come in many forms, but we specifically examined whether the physical trait of babyfaceness is related to the success of black male leaders. Babyfaced adults are sometimes perceived as being weak and incompetent. Indeed, research has found that babyfaceness is a liability for white males seeking high positions of leadership. However, we hypothesized that a babyface would benefit black leaders, by increasing warmth and tolerance toward them and reducing negative emotions whites sometimes have about blacks. Research has shown that there is no difference in the average babyfaceness of blacks and whites in general, but our results, forthcoming in Psychological Science, indicate that black male chief executives are significantly more babyfaced than white male chief executives. Also, our respondents judged black CEOs to appear warmer than white CEOs, even though they rated blacks as a group as less warm than whites. Furthermore, the more babyfaced a black CEO was, the more likely he was to lead a more prestigious corporation and earn a higher salary than a less babyfaced black CEO.

In an interesting twist Mr. Livingston points out that in some circumstances the “Baby Faced Leader” can have its benefits in the case of some African American Males…and not so much with white males. However, because it’s perceived as less threatening and disarming from an African American Male perspective I still believe it’s a negative for gentlemen that look like me. I respect Mr. Livington’s attempt to put a positive spin on the “Baby Faced Leader” however there still belies this notion that a very youthful appearance gives off a weak and sometimes incompetent perception (paraphrasing Mr. Livingston).

Look, for all of you “baby faced only a mother could love” leaders out there cherish your youthful appearance because it will eventually dissipate and you’ll be perceived as the “over the hill hack”. While there will be those that overlook you because of superficial biases remember this…when they learn that you are not only youthful in appearance but youthful innovatively, creatively, and strategically…they will regret they did not give you a second LOOK.

“Baby Faced Leadership”…should never be underestimated

Thank you so much!

Andre’ Harrell

AH2 & Beyond Consulting



Enjoy the site? Checkout our White Papers Section. Click on Picture.