Recognizing Leadership at a Distance

Peter D. Harms, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Guohong Han and Huaiyu Chen, both of Youngstown State University, published “Recognizing Leadership at a Distance: A Study of Leader Effectiveness Across Cultures” on February 26th, 2012 in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. To view other OnlineFirst articles, please click here. Dr. Harms kindly provided the following thoughts on the article.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

Scientific curiosity.  We had seen some earlier research on evaluating faces and linking it to corporate performance, but those studies typically lacked important controls needed to make strong conclusions.  I thought the concept of being able to evaluate character using faces was fascinating and wanted to evaluate it for myself.  This research addresses two very interesting questions.  The first is whether or not you can determine someone’s personality with some accuracy based on a picture.  The second is whether the personality of a leader matters for firm performance. Showing both is really hard, but really exciting as well.  What we added to the mix was greater methodological rigor as well as putting an international spin on it.  Could individuals evaluate the personality of leaders from another country and would these evaluations still have enough validity to predict firm performance?

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

Frankly, that the study worked at all was pretty amazing to me.  It is a pretty radical notion that one can make evaluations based on pictures of faces and that those evaluations can be used to predict patterns of behaviors that impact the outcomes of major companies and thousands of people.  In terms of the results themselves, what was most surprising was how well the results of using this method lined up with prior research using other traditional methods.

I think that this study is also a good illustration of how you can have both accuracy and bias in perceptions.  Our participants were able to somewhat accurately measure character traits based on pictures, but because they used their own stereotypes of what a leader should be like, they made inaccurate judgments about who would be an effective leader in another cultural context.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

I think our hope is that this spurs interest in using alternative methods for collecting data on leaders.  So much research in the social sciences relies on self-report measures that it is really refreshing to try something new once in a while.  In terms of non-research outcomes, I also hope that this research makes people reconsider how they evaluate people in contexts that are foreign to them.  Our first impressions may be wrong because we carry so much cultural baggage around with us.  If we can set that aside, we have the opportunity to make more accurate perceptions and decisions.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

We would definitely try to replicate these findings in different cultural settings.  The Chinese-US comparison was convenient for us because there is so much research and interest in those two economies.  But I would love to see if these results hold for other countries.

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