What Does a Leader Look Like? The Problem With Prototypes

What does a leader look like? It’s an important question to ask ourselves. Doing so may allow us to uncover biases or at least consider our perceptions of a certain look. For example, when you ask yourself, “What does a cardiologist look like?” — what comes to mind? It wouldn’t be unexpected if the first image to pop into your head was of a mature male, because historically, that has been the primary representation online and in advertising. In reality, 67% of cardiologists are women. 

A potential cause of underrepresentation of minorities (including people of color) in media in leadership positions is that they don’t align with a predetermined leader “prototype.” In other words, a preconceived idea of what a leader looks like, based on years of data and reinforced by popular imagery, can actually influence who is recognized, hired, and promoted as a leader. 

In a series of studies, researchers found that an implicit pro-white leadership bias existed that could help explain underrepresentation. Across studies, “both white-majority and ethnic minority participants reacted significantly faster when ethnically white names and leadership roles or leadership traits were paired in an Implicit Association Test (IAT)” vs. when ethnic minority names and leadership traits were paired. 

Additional research shows that other physical observations or perceptions can also impact someone’s influence, and in some cases, their salary. That’s right — the Journal of Applied Psychology actually concluded that height and salary are positively correlated, “especially for men, who earn 2.5% more per inch of additional height.”

Cognitive Strategy to Reimagine Leaders: Dual Identity Model (DIM)

Our brains have a way of categorizing things, which is relevant in the case of perceptual biases. Categorization is defined as an “automatic psychological reaction to being confronted with different stimuli that leads to forming groups on different levels of abstraction.” For example, in some cases, “exposure to a female manager” may result in immediate (even involuntary) categorization of her into a “female category” vs. a “manager or leader category.” 

Similarly, someone’s immediate categorization of someone as Black or Hispanic could also supersede their categorization as “leader.” In turn, this could ultimately restrict their chances of being promoted and/or being perceived as a leader.

So, how does someone reduce this tendency or bias? An NCBI study suggests a specific strategy. The Dual Identity Model (DIM) hypothesizes that having people practice identifying themselves and others on two levels of abstraction at the same time can improve intergroup relations. 

The goal is to create a more inclusive ingroup. Put simply, the DIM is about actively looking for ways we are alike and connected while maintaining our original group identity as well (i.e., the original subordinate group and the superordinate, more inclusive identity).

“Leadership is like Beauty”

When it comes to imagining what a leader looks like, I enjoy words from leadership guru Warren G. Bennis. He said, “To an extent, leadership is like beauty; it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.” Like beauty, leadership is complex and subjective, despite any reinforced standard or stereotype. 

After all, a leader is someone who, through a combination of experience and effort, becomes someone worth following. For more information on leadership, see my last blog, “Highly Effective Habits of New Leaders.