Canadian Markets open in 47 mins.

'Powerful' faces not as successful in non-profit sector: study

Michael Shulman
ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the 26th World Gas Conference in Paris, France, June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier - RTR4YGKX

There are seemingly endless pieces of literature on how to look like a leader: you can try different fashion tips or personal grooming methods, but much of it comes down to genetics.

Past research has shown CEOs with masculine facial features that give off a sense off dominance and aggression lead companies with greater annual net profits.

But a new paper says that people who give off this sense of power are perhaps not suited for the non-profit sector.

The study, which was put together by researchers from the University of Toronto, showed black-and-white images of the faces of many CEOs of the 100 highest-revenue non-profit organizations, as listed by Forbes from 2009 to 2011, to a group of 169 participants.

They were not told they were CEOs and they were asked to rate them on numerous characteristics, including: dominance, likability, facial maturity, trustworthiness, leadership, age, attractiveness and happiness.

The researchers then grouped these scores together, combining dominance and facial maturity into a score called “power,” and trustworthiness and likeability into “warmth. ”

The study found that CEOs of non-profits that participants rated highly in terms of power tended to have lower total revenue, less funding from private sources and decreased fundraising efficiency for their organizations in comparison to their peers who received inferior scores.

“Other studies have shown that power traits really do correlate with powerful behavior, which is advantageous for profit-based companies,” Daniel Re, one of the authors of the study told Yahoo Canada Finance in an email.

“One might expect the facial traits that predict CEO success in one field to extrapolate to all fields, but this demonstrates that that’s not the case.”

The study also asked a group of participants to look at the faces of CEOs of profit-based enterprises (Re wouldn’t reveal which executives, but the face of Rex Tillerson – CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation – is in the paper).

Their scores suggested that they look more powerful in comparison to their peers in the non-profit sector, which the researchers believe supports previous studies that indicate facial cues of power signal “real dominance, aggression and selfishness.”

"People who display these facial cues may enjoy greater success as leaders of companies where the main goal is personal gain and stakeholder wealth,” said the study’s press release.

Re said that these executives who come off as more powerful don’t get as far or have as much success working at non-profits.

“It’s possible that there is a kernel of truth in looking powerful … they act more dominantly and selfishly," he said.

“They may therefore be less likely to join (non-profit organizations) and less likely to rise to the top of them.”

Re said in the press release that it's not necessarily that “non-profits are picking softer-looking people,” but rather they are drawn to “nobler” causes and are likely the ones who have risen through the ranks.

However, Re admits that the link between appearance and leadership ability is “somewhat unclear.”

“Facial appearance may affect real-world leadership choice in that those perceived to ‘look like a leader’ for a particular domain are treated as such and therefore ascend to actual leadership roles faster,” he writes in the study.

“In turn, an individual with a ‘leader-like’ appearance may believe himself or herself to be a good leader and act more leader-like, creating a feedback loop in which appearance and behaviour converge.”