Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

Does Size Matter for Leadership?

by Keith Grint

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Many (many) years ago there was a spate of attacks on women in Oxford, and, having just acquired my karate black belt (it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I could have just bought one from a sports shop and saved all that blood, sweat, and tears), I was persuaded to provide some basic self-defense training for the women in my college. It was winter and the college gym, where the training was to be held, was on the edge of the grounds and required a fifty-yard walk across an unlit path though some woods. After the first session it was pointed out that — ironically — getting to the training might deter the most anxious trainees and that I should get the college to provide some lighting to resolve this. I approached the building manager and suggested this and was shocked at his response.

“Keith, I’ve worked here for thirty years and never, ever, felt threatened.”

“Bill,” I responded, “how tall are you?”

“I’m six foot nine; why do you ask?”

The point that power and privilege might be invisible to the holder is often reproduced when we hear people in positions of power — leaders — talk about their success only being a consequence of their hard work or extraordinary intelligence, rather than the privileged background provided by their parents, to say nothing of the financial gifts provided to them by their family or family connections. Similarly, when asked to look in a mirror and say what you see, an able-bodied privileged white man is unlikely to say, “I see an able-bodied privileged white man,” and are rather more likely to say something like, “I see a successful lawyer.” As Kimmel suggests, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it” (quoted in Smith, 2016). This helps to explain why, in so many areas of life, women are, by default, absent. Thus, CPR mannequins, crash test dummies, space suits, and a whole host of other things are designed by men for men (Perez, 2020).

But there are obviously important inequalities within the same gender, and one of the most significant is height. The assumption that greater height correlates with attributions of (male) leadership has long prevailed in human society starting with “Big Man” notions attached to hunter-gatherer societies and ending with some interesting contemporary data. For instance, it is usually the case that the tallest of the U.S. Presidential candidates wins the election, but perhaps the more critical issue is that it has been almost 120 years since the president was smaller than the average American male at the time of the election (Judge, 2020).

Height appears to be more important for men than women, and there is considerable research on height providing advantages to tall men over small men in terms of salary, leadership position, attractiveness to women, assumptions of charisma, and levels of trust (Case & Paxson, 2008). Hamstra (2014) suggests the importance of height to men may be down to an evolutionary effect, given that leadership positions have traditionally been held by men across most human societies until relatively recently. In short(!), yes, height matters. That intriguing use of language should also trigger a recognition that bias against small people is strongly reproduced in and through language. Thus, we talk of “standing tall,” “stooping low,” “look up to,” “look down on,” “tower over,” “cower below,” or, in the words of Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V,

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,

Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment…

Note here how the leader, Harry, is portrayed as much higher than the symbolic soldiers who “crouch” beneath him by his heels. Such assumptions about leadership and height — or followership and lack of height — are reflections of better nutrition across generations, which explains why social class is related to height. But assumptions about height — and gender — are also built into the fabric of our society, so door peepholes and bathroom mirrors in hotels often seem to be at the height of the architect who designed them, or the builder who installed them, rather than at a height where (just about) everyone could see through or in them. After all, tall people can bend down six inches easily, but it’s rather more difficult for small people to grow six inches. And that really is the point: We have no control over some aspects of our appearance (height, gender, skin color etc.,) so to denigrate (belittle) people for such permanent features of our bodies is different from doing the same because we do not, for example, like their clothing.

Being less than tall is not just a practical difficulty then but also a social stigma for it is common to demean small people by referring to their “diminutive stature.” For example, on 3 June 2019, the then President, Donald Trump, on a visit to the UK, referred to the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, as “nasty… a stone cold loser…who by all accounts has done a terrible job as Mayor of London [who reminded Trump] very much of our very dumb and incompetent Mayor of NYC de Blasio.” The only difference was that Sadiq Khan was “only half” de Blasio’s height (Donald Trump height-shames, 2019). (de Blasio is six foot five and Khan is five foot six). And even when allegedly small men achieve significant things (despite Randy Newman’s allegedly ironic song which insisted that “Short people got no reason to live”), it is often the case that the “Napoleon Complex” is uttered to explain this — that is, that small people have to overachieve to cope with their height anxiety. This is interesting because Napoleon wasn’t actually small at all. At five foot seven inches he was average height for his time and country (as was Adolf Hitler for his).

Despite this, tall people — compared to small people — are regularly assumed to be nicer, more dependable, more intelligent, and are rarely on the end of some derogatory comment, though very tall women may be for daring to compete with men and small women can also be on the receiving end of height prejudice. For instance, Janet Yellen, the five-foot-tall, one-time Chair of the Federal Reserve was not retained, and her explanation was that “Trump didn’t reappoint me … [because] I’m short and don’t look the part of a central banker” (quoted in Sieghart, 2021: 256; see also O’Brien (2018) for more on this story and Merritt (2021) for a review of Sieghart’s book). Indeed, Virginia Woolf insisted in A Room of One’s Own (2014) that men needed women to be inferior just to boost their own inflated egos: “That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so empathically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge… How is he [a man] to go on giving judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (p. 35).

Though height does not determine life chances, it does narrow them for small people (Hall, 2006) in similar ways that gender, race, and ethnicity operate. So, we would expect to find a small number of small people in the “successful leader” category, whether that’s political leadership or leadership in some other form, such as the arts or sciences. Thus, we have Sartre and Keats at five foot; Grieg and Schubert at five foot one; Toussaint Louverture, Beethoven, and Kant at five foot two; Khrushchev at five foot three; Mozart, Franco, Gandhi, and Nelson at five foot four; and the “statuesque” Stalin at five foot five. Although height seems to be less relevant for women than it is for men, which is very different from the significance of gender, In the UK, for example, two of the most important jobs in the country are held by women — the monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and the chief of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick — who are both just over five foot.

Of course, it is also common to demean people for their body shape and their appearance as well as their height. This might well be more significant for women than men and is equally damaging. As Wieckowski (2019) suggests, and in contrast to men, for women “beauty is a liability.” Indeed, all aspects of bodies and bodily performances are important in our assumptions about, and assessments of, leadership (Mavin & Grandy, 2016; Sinclair, 2005). As Cunningham and Roberts (2021) conclude, young British women (aged 18-24) believe that their most important characteristic is their intelligence, but they also believe that “society” regards their most important characteristic as their appearance — and it ought to be “perfect.”

So, for all that we like to repeat the rhyme, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we know that this is just a parental lie generated to try and protect our children from unpleasant peers. Do we all need to “grow-up”?

References

Case, A. & Paxson, C. (2008). Stature and status: Height, ability, and labor market outcomes. Journal of Political Economy 116(3), 499-532.  

Cunningham, J. & Roberts, P. (2021, June 24). The advertising industry sold us the perfect woman – do we finally understand the price we paid? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jun/24/the-advertising-industry-sold-us-the-perfect-woman-do-we-finally-understand-the-price-we-paid

Donald Trump height-shames London Mayor Sadiq Khan as he arrives for UK visit, calls him nasty. (2019, June 3). India Today. https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/donald-trump-height-shames-london-mayor-sadiq-khan-as-he-arrives-for-uk-visit-calls-him-nasty-1541441-2019-06-03

Hall, S. S. (2006). Size Matters: How Height Affects the Health, Happiness, and Success of Boys-and the Men they Become. Houghton Harcourt Mifflin.

Hamstra, M. R. W. (2014). ‘Big’ men: Male leaders’ height positively relates to followers’ perception of charisma. Personality and Individual Difference 56, 190-192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.08.014

Judge, T. (2020). Does height make right? U.S. presidents and their height, weight and greatness. Lead Read Today. https://fisher.osu.edu/blogs/leadreadtoday/blog/does-height-make-right-u-s-presidents-and-their-height-weight-and-greatness

Mavin, S. & Grandy, G. A. (2016). A Theory of abject appearance: Women elite leaders’ intra-gender ‘management’ of bodies and appearance. Human Relations 69(5), 1095-1120. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726715609107

Merritt, S. (2021, July 5). The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart review – mocked, patronised and still paid less than men. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jul/05/the-authority-gap-by-mary-ann-sieghart-review-why-women-are-still-taken-less-seriously-than-men-and-what-we-can-do-about-it

O’Brien, M. (2018, December 3). Trump thought Yellen was too short to be Fed chair. That’s not how any of this works. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/03/trump-thought-yellen-was-too-short-be-fed-chair-thats-not-how-any-this-works/

Perez, C. C. (2020). Invisible women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Vintage.

Sieghart, M.A. (2021). The authority gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it. Doubleday.

Sinclair, A. (2005). Body possibilities in leadership. Leadership 1(4), 387-406. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715005057231

Smith, F. (2016, June 8) “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”: Engaging men in workplace equality. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jun/08/workplace-gender-equality-invisible-privilege

Wieckowski, A. G. (2019, November-December). For women in business, beauty is a liability. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/11/for-women-in-business-beauty-is-a-liability

Woolf, V. (2014) A room of one’s own. Collins Classics.

Headshot of Keith Grint

Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.  His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).

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