Overweight leaders elicit negative reactions

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As much as we'd like everyone to be judged solely on the quality of their leadership, external factors such as appearance really do matter.

While our bodies don’t need to be ‘catwalk ready’, a study has suggested that leaders must appear fit and of a healthy BMI in order to prove to others that they have what it takes to do the job competent.

Research by the US-based Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) revealed many people perceive that overweight executives are less effective at interpersonal relationships in the office, have poorer job performance, and less leadership ability.

A subsequent article in The Wall Street Journal cited experts who claim “staying trim is now virtually required for anyone on track for the corner office”. Employees and clients hold negative stereotypes about the overweight, they say, and many believe that a lack of health or stamina will negatively impact performance.

While it is firmly recognised that fitness doesn't directly impact managerial ability, and a slightly to moderately overweight person's physical state isn't likely to hurt job performance, this is an issue that may have longer-term effects.

"Because the demands of leadership can be quite strenuous, the physical aspects are just as important as everything else," Sharon McDowell-Larsen, an exercise physiologist at CCL said. According to the data, pudgy executives tend to be perceived as less effective in the workplace, both in performance and interpersonal relationships.

Leadership experts have echoed their agreement on this issue.

Barry Posner, a leadership professor at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business, said that a heavy executive is judged to be less capable because of assumptions about how weight affects health and stamina. He added that he can't name a single overweight Fortune 500 CEO. "We have stereotypes about fat, so when we see a senior executive who's overweight, our initial reaction isn't positive," he was quoted.

Also, the CEOs of today are in a much more visible position where they must always be media-ready at all times, while appearing poised and ready to take charge when the going gets tough. Extra pounds can convey weakness or a “lack of control”, according to Amanda Sanders, a New York-based image consultant who has worked with senior executives at Fortune 500 firms.

Now, that’s some food for thought.

  • kb on 2013-02-06 11:01:53 AM

    While all of these observations may have some truth to them, what of the risks related to a claim of discrimination based on excess weight (potentially to be argued as related to a health condition)if a fit person is hired over an overweight person who is otherwise as or more qualified?

  • WR on 2013-02-06 2:14:22 PM

    Ageism, racism and now weightism... All Human Rights issues. We all all aware of the "wrongness" when people, of physical disabilities are passed over for positions they are ample qualified. Through education and media attention to the fact a wheelchair does preclude you from doing a job has changed perceptions perhaps the same must be done for weightism.
    10 years ago, smokers were attacked and ostracized, are over weight people the new targets for this generation? Is it more important to be a movie star or to have the brains and ethics to run a company? Both Bernie Madoff and Colin Black looked great in pictures but they damaged so many. As we all know, the cover doesn't tell you the story in the book.

  • Heather on 2014-01-02 8:44:20 AM

    Weight is not the only appearance issue. I've read in several articles that women with curly hair are seen as unprofessional and are less likely to be advanced up the corporate ladder. This is backed up by the fact that a woman I know with curly hair was recently told that she should start wearing her hair straight if she wished to be considered for a promotion!

  • JP on 2014-01-02 10:37:05 AM

    These publications influence some of those who read them. This type of article clearly is about appearance, in an appearance driven time. Heaven forbid that the person with the ability to lead is allowed to lead.

  • Mark on 2014-01-02 11:10:12 AM

    This may sound cruel, but unlike people living in poverty, a CEO can afford to eat healthy and exercise. So unless they have a VERY rare genetic condition that causes them to be overweight on a 2000 calorie a day diet, there isn't any excuse for being overweight if you are a one percenter. The fact is, you are the face of the organization and you should be well dressed and don't look like you eat a bucket of Kfried every night or consume a dozen beers.

  • Anon on 2014-01-06 9:16:31 AM

    As an overweight professional, I agree with the primary premise in this article. My biggest hurdle in life is with myself and directly correlates to self esteem and leadership ability. I know I am good at my job and a highly capable as a leader. I also know that if I could control eating and show resolve with physical fitness, I would be significantly stronger, both emotionally and physically. I think individuals have to ask themselves a key question: Why am I overweight? If you are so consumed with work, that you have little time for exercise and proper food preparation, you may be a highly qualified leader. If you are overweight because the TV, computer, tavern or other distraction is more important to you than health or work, odds are you will improve at work when you make better personal choices.

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