What a CEO’s Facial Appearance Tells You about Business Success

December 13, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image faces

Do leaders look like leaders?

“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but does this apply to pictures of peoples’ faces?”

This is how Daniel Re and Nicholas Rule open their essay. So, what does a face tell us? Can we assume a person’s personality or business success by simply looking at his or her face? Do we know how successful they are?  Whether they’re in senior or junior leadership position? Well, according to Re and Rule: Yes we can – at least, partially.

Re and Rule reviewed several articles that deal with facial appearance and its relationship to success.

In a study by Rule & Ambady (2008) participants from the US were asked to look at headshot portrait photographs of 50 CEOs from the Fortune 1000 – and, just by looking at their faces, were asked to rate them for their leadership ability. While controlling for attractiveness and age, the researchers measured the relationship between ‘perceived leadership ability’ and the companies’ actual profits. The result: what someone looks like predicts a higher ability to lead a company as indicated by the profit of the company.

As company CEOs tend to move from company to company, Re and Rule also reviewed studies that investigated the faces of managing partners in the more stable world of law in which there is far less movement from firm to firm. To become a managing partner, lawyers have to go through law school, demonstrate high performance and climb the career ladder. It’s not about ‘network’ but about competence. Rule and Ambady (2011) showed that even the success of managing partners could be predicted by the photos in their undergraduate yearbooks.

They found that so-called ‘masculine’ characteristics are highly related to leadership competence. But what does ‘masculine’ mean? It seems that there is a ratio that defines how ‘masculine’ a face appears or how ‘baby-faced’ it is and is an indicator associated with testosterone in men. However, these results were mostly from white men in the US – and different ethnicities, or cultures have a strong influence on these effects. For example, Americans value power and individualism while Japanese admire warmth and collectivistic behaviour – and this is reflected in their perception of ‘typical’ leader faces. That is, Americans value powerful, masculine faces, while Japanese like to see their leaders as warm and more youthful.

So what is the impact of this phenomenon?

Re and Rule argue that up to 14% of the difference in profits between companies can be seen in the leaders’ facial appearance.

So, would it be smart to get cosmetic surgery so we can be more successful? Whilst Re and Rule assume that the biochemical processes “that make someone look like a leader may also give him or her the personality to become one”. But, with modern selection processes, it is far more reliable to trust in solid, robust assessment tools!


Rule, N. O., & Ambady, N. (2008). The face of success – Inferences from chief executive officers’ appearance predict company profits. Psychological Science, 19, 109-111

Rule, N. O., & Ambady, N. (2011). Judgments of power from college yearbook photos and later career success. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 154-158.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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