The look of leadership

Law firms led by managing partners whose faces look “powerful” actually make more money

The look of leadership

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Dressing for success has always made good business sense. But having the right face for it seems to be important, too: law firms led by managing partners whose faces look “powerful” actually make more money, according to a new study. And it seems like it’s not something that can be faked. By looking at old yearbook photos, researchers found that successful managing partners had powerful-looking faces as far back as their college years, before they even began their careers.

The University of Toronto’s Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady of Tufts University asked people to judge photos of 73 managing partners (four of them women) from The American Lawyer’s top 100 firms, judging them on dominance, maturity, attractiveness, likeability and trustworthiness. They did the same with college yearbook photos, taken 33 years earlier on average, to see how much had changed.

Remarkably, facial power in yearbook photos—snapped when these managing partners didn’t have a public relations team to burnish their image—was almost as effective at predicting a law firm’s success as the more recent head shots. This suggests a powerful face is somewhat consistent over time, and can’t really be faked. Features that express dominance and facial maturity, like a strong jaw or brow, often “have more to do with the bone structure of the face,” Rule says, and “can’t easily be altered—not with expression, cosmetics, surgery.”

Rule, who holds a Canada Research Chair in social perception and cognition, has looked at this type of question before: in 2008, he co-authored a study showing that, among chief executive officers of Fortune 1,000 companies, powerful-looking faces could predict their companies’ success. “But lawyers are different,” he says. Unlike CEOs—who might be hired externally—managing partners almost always work their way up through the firm, so first impressions shouldn’t be as important. Even so, based on the data they collected, “14 per cent of the firm’s profits were predicted by the managing partner’s face, and nothing else,” he says. The appearance of warmth in a managing partner’s face had no impact on profits.

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