Overweight leaders elicit negative reactions

by 06 Jan 2014
As much as we'd like everyone to be judged solely on the quality of their leadership, external factors such as appearance really do matter.

While our bodies don’t need to be ‘catwalk ready’, a study has suggested that leaders must appear fit and of a healthy BMI in order to prove to others that they have what it takes to do the job competently.

Research by the US-based Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) revealed many people perceive that overweight executives are less effective at interpersonal relationships in the office, have poorer job performance and less leadership ability.

A subsequent article in The Wall Street Journal cited experts who claim “staying trim is now virtually required for anyone on track for the corner office”. Employees and clients hold negative stereotypes about the overweight, they say, and many believe that a lack of health or stamina will negatively impact performance.

While it is firmly recognised that fitness doesn't directly impact managerial ability, and a slightly to moderately overweight person's physical state isn't likely to hurt job performance, this is an issue that may have longer-term effects.

"Because the demands of leadership can be quite strenuous, the physical aspects are just as important as everything else," Sharon McDowell-Larsen, an exercise physiologist at CCL said. According to the data, pudgy executives tend to be perceived as less effective in the workplace, both in performance and interpersonal relationships.

Leadership experts have echoed their agreement on this issue.

Barry Posner, a leadership professor at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business, said that a heavy executive is judged to be less capable because of assumptions about how weight affects health and stamina. He added that he can't name a single overweight Fortune 500 CEO. "We have stereotypes about fat, so when we see a senior executive who's overweight, our initial reaction isn't positive," he was quoted.

Also, the CEOs of today are in a much more visible position where they must always be media-ready at all times, while appearing poised and ready to take charge when the going gets tough. Extra pounds can convey weakness or a “lack of control”, according to Amanda Sanders, a New York-based image consultant who has worked with senior executives at Fortune 500 firms.

Now, that’s some food for thought.

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