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.