Why the Leader Needs to Be the Tallest Person in the Room

Research continues to show that the people who rise to the top, who inspire the most people, and who tend to take charge are the tallest. But since you can’t grow taller, what does this mean for the average (heighted) leader?

One would think in the year 2015 we are past Leadership Trait theory. It originated in late 1800’s, and it says traits such as height, age, social economic background, inborn personality, etc.—which can’t be changed (rather than behavior which is learnable)—will determine leadership success. It is related to the idea and practice that you are born into leadership (r oyalty).

Yet, it is not only still studied, but it also still holds. For example, recent research by Duke’s Fuqua School of Business shows that if you are below average height, your climb will be a steep one, as most CEO’s are taller than average. (It is an average—for example Jack Welch and Mark Zuckerberg are both 5’7”.) Also, in the race to be CEO (President) of the USA, the taller candidate won 22 out of 25 times in the 20th century.

Ok. Height matters. But what if you are not tall? What do you do? Instead of getting caught up in height, think about it like this: your employees and your organization want you to act tall. They want you bring the things that tall people bring:

* Tall people are looked up to – Maybe people elect and promote tall people because they know employees literally need someone to look up to. You literally look up to a tall leader. And even if your leader is shorter than you, everyone wants a leader that they can look up to, be inspired by, and learn from their example. I have personally asked close to a thousand organizational employees “What leader do you look up to?” Everyone had someone in mind. They all had someone they admired. Maybe a current or previous manager, maybe a family member or even an historical person. This means whatever your height, act in ways that others will admire.

* Tall people see above and beyond others – In the battle of days past, it made sense for leaders to be the tallest person. They could literally see above and beyond the other on the battlefield. Leaders took high ground to see what the troops were encountering. The same is true of leaders today. Their main job is to examine the scene and see the bigger picture. To be the tallest in the room, you need to rise about the minutia and see the patterns and implications. You need to look ahead of where everyone is, communicate what you see, and lead people accordingly.

* Innovative strategy adds inches to your height – Napoleon did this when he invented a new, more nimble and decisive military strategy that makes him recognized as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. As a leader, you must find a way to look forward and create a new approach that will rise your people above the competition.

* The most decisive person is always the tallest – As an executive at an energy company told me recently “I get paid to take the risk on the decisions I make after listening to all the smart people around me.” Delays and indecisiveness mean lost opportunities and lower morale. Whether it is your idea or it comes from the insights of those around you, leaders decide.

* Stand on the shoulders of giants. – Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Leaders in any area leverage others knowledge and insights through mentors and advisors. Newton has Isaac Barrow. Bill Gates credits Warren Buffet as a key mentor. Estee Lauder, one of the wealthiest self made women entrepreneurs, was mentored by her uncle. It doesn’t matter who it is, find people who have been there before you and stand on their shoulders.

* The tallest nail gets struck down first – Great leaders stand up for their team. They are accountable and take the hit when things go bad. For example, GM CEO Mary Barra took accountability head on with the ignition problems that were sidestepped in the past. That’s what leaders do. Even in Asia where the adage often is to not stand out because the tallest nail gets both recognized and hit, leaders step down—or worse, kill themselves! (which I don’t recommend of course)—because leaders are accountable. Be accountable for your team’s results. Because at the end of the day, there is no such thing as “I am a great leader; it’s just my team that sucks!” Your team is a reflection of you.


Increase Your Team's Swing: Learn How >