Black CEOs and the Teddy Bear Effect

If you're black and want to lead a Fortune 500 company, look cuddly.

It would not be remarkable that Richard Parsons, chairman of Citigroup and former chairman of Time Warner, and Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express, have a certain cherubic look—a rounded face, large forehead, smallish nose, and largish ears—except for one small fact. Several studies, including this one from 2008, had shown that among white men, having a baby face is correlated with a lower likelihood of reaching the top in the business or, to a lesser extent, political world. Especially in corporate America, we like our leaders to look mean and menacing, like “Neutron” Jack Welch or “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap. Had Parsons and Chenault, as well as other African-American business leaders, simply managed to buck that trend?

If only. We're not race-blind yet, and we certainly weren't when these leaders were making their way up the corporate ladder. Prof. Robert Livingston and grad student Nicholas Pearce of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University therefore wondered whether, "apart from impeccable credentials, demonstrated competence, and tireless diligence, successful Black leaders possess disarming mechanisms—physical, psychological, or behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of threat by the dominant group," as they write in a paper published in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science. The short and discouraging answer, they find, is yes: having a nonthreatening, disarming appearance is, for black men but not for white, a plus when it comes to business success.

The study was simple. The researchers had volunteers study head shots of current and former CEOs—men and women, black and white, all in business attire—of Fortune 500 companies and rate how baby-faced they looked on a four-point scale. Black male CEOs were rated as significantly more baby-faced than their white peers, as well as warmer—kind, nonthreatening guys.

Coincidence? If only. The most likely interpretation of the results is that facial cues of warmth and nonthreateningness "mitigate feelings of anger, envy, or resentment among Whites who might otherwise feel threatened by powerful Black males," the researchers say. That message—"I am not a threat"—must be extremely powerful because, in general, men who convey anger (the opposite of what a baby face connotes) cause people to impute strength and competence to them, as Larissa Tiedens of Stanford business school showed in a 2001 study. So while "angry, authoritative ... styles can benefit White male leaders," Livingston and Pearce conclude, "these tactics can backfire for nonprototypical leaders." That would be black men. Conversely, appearing cuddly and nonthreatening can be disarming enough to hold racism at bay.

It's impossible to read this study without remembering the pundit chatter during the 2008 presidential campaign about how Barack Obama must never, ever appear to be an “angry black man”. Those of us old enough to remember Michael Dukakis's quest for the White House in 1988, however, recall that his failure to explode in anger was a turning point—downward—of his campaign.

It's also hard to know which findings are more likely to make you despair of reaching the promised land of race-blindness, this baby-face study or the numerous others that have shown an effect of race and ethnicity in the decisions of criminal juries, including this one. (For an excellent analysis of the psychological factors underlying race and wrongful convictions, read this essay. Basically, research has shown that the more stereotypically "black" a defendant's features, the more likely he is to be convicted.) At least a black child can grow up to be a Fortune 500 CEO. It will be progress when one who looks nothing like a teddy bear can, too.