Study Suggests Nonprofit CEOs Just Look Nicer than Business CEOs

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June 22, 2016; Phys.org

Recent research from the University of Toronto suggests that the facial features of successful leaders in the for-profit realm differ from those of the folk who lead successful nonprofits.

Daniel Re, a postdoctoral fellow, and Nicholas Rule, an associate professor of psychology, authored “Predicting Firm Success from the Facial Appearance of Chief Executive Officers of Non-Profit Organizations,” which reported on three studies, all of which suggest that the facial features of successful nonprofit CEOs are distinguishably different from successful leaders of for-profit companies.

In the first study, a group of 169 participants were shown photos of the faces of many of the CEOs of the 100 highest-revenue nonprofit organizations listed by Forbes for 2009, 2010, and 2011 and asked to rate them on dominance, likability, facial maturity, and trustworthiness, as well as leadership, age, attractiveness, and happiness.

The researchers then grouped characteristics together, combining dominance and facial maturity into a score they called “power,” and grouping trustworthiness and likability into a score they labeled “warmth.” They found (wait for it!) that the high-power crowd tended to raise less money than those perceived to be less powerful.

“The results were actually much more dramatic than I would have thought,” says Re. “Previous studies have shown that CEOs who appear dominant seem to do well when it comes to generating wealth. But for NPOs, we found the opposite.”

When the researchers had participants look at the faces of CEOs of businesses, the participants’ scores suggested that they looked more powerful on the whole than the warm and fuzzy CEOs of NPOs.

This seems to support the results of previous studies that have suggested facial cues of power signal real dominance, aggression, and selfishness, and that people who display these facial cues may enjoy greater success as leaders of companies where the main goal is personal gain and stakeholder wealth.

“Even though the most successful CEOs of for-profit businesses might be these cut-throat, intense sharks, that’s not necessarily the key to good leadership across-the-board,” says Re.

“What we seem to have found is that people who come off as more powerful won’t get as far or do as well working at non-profits,” says Re. “It’s not necessarily that non-profits are picking softer-looking people, it’s that such people—perhaps drawn to working for a nobler cause—are likely the ones who have gotten ahead and risen through the ranks throughout their career in the non-profit industry.”

As silly as it sounds, this study may actually connect to other research about the differences in leadership styles between the profit-making and nonprofit sectors. Essentially, nonprofit leaders depend more on negotiating skills and less on an authoritative, top-down style to get things done. Management guru Jim Collins explains this split in an article he wrote for NPQ entitled “What Makes Powerful Nonprofit Leaders?”, where he wrote:

When we examined the differences between the business and social sectors through the lens of the good-to-great framework, this difference in power structure led us to advance the theory of “legislative” versus “executive” leadership. In executive leadership, the individual leader has enough concentrated power simply to make the right decisions happen. Legislative leadership, on the other hand, relies more on persuasion, political currency, and shared interests to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen. In the discussion of the Survey of Leadership Practices by Jean R. Lobell and Paul M. Connolly, we see legislative leadership in action, with high nonprofit scores on dimensions like persuasiveness, encouraging participation, sharing credit, teaming, and organizational sensitivity. With the legislative versus executive distinction in mind, these relatively high scores for nonprofit executives make perfect sense.

And all of that may also explain the difference in required aspect.—Ruth McCambridge