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When Small Men Make Big Leaders: Why Height Matters When it Comes to World Leaders

Our stereotypes about height pervade group thinking and popular culture, so much so that it actually affects the kind of leaders we choose. Taller men supposedly reap many benefits, one of which is that they are seen as more capable leaders. However when one looks at the data on the height of world leaders, there are many short surprises.

While it is well known that tyrannical leaders like Josef Stalin and Kim Il-Sung were short men, many also forget that a large amount of our recent world leaders like Francois Hollande and Dmitry Medvedev are also smaller than average. If this is true, how does height actually factor into the leaders we choose and how does it affect shorter leaders on the world stage?


small men make big mistakes

A recent study by Social Science Quarterly asked a sample group to draw an average citizen and an average leader, and unsurprisingly 64% drew the leader to be taller than the citizen. This simplistic test is just one way of demonstrating how we subconsciously have a preference for taller men to lead us, perhaps as an evolutionary throwback to when tall and strong leaders were a necessity to defend the tribe or group.

There are many ideas about why short men are now more able to break through, and the truth of it is probably two-fold. One, our world leaders are no longer military leaders in the sense that they ride into battle with their troops. It is now their minds and not their bodies that we are interested in. Secondly, with height increasing shoes and visual tricks it is quite easy to disguise how short a man seems on the world stage. In fact, it is only generally after meetings of world leaders when the topic of height is discussed at length by the media because it is only then that it becomes quite obvious. Francois Hollande can rest easy in thinking that any man would look short compared to the USA's Barack Obama and Canada's Stephen Harper, both of whom stretch over 6ft tall.

Leaders on the Lookout for Height Increasing Shoes?

small men make big mistakes

So what do shorter leaders do about their height? While some like Dmitry Medvedev accept their shortness, other leaders of recent times have had a strained relationship with their height. The former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, in particular repeatedly lied about his true height (understood to be 5ft 5", although he reports 5ft 7").

Former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, is much more frank about his height deficit because the 4 inches between himself and his wife are not easy to hide. While Carla Sarkozy famously wore flat shoes and Nicolas the heels, Nicolas was always surprising frank about his lifts and unashamed of his height. By owning the supposed problem, Sarkozy made it his own.

Height is often used against world leaders, with the most famous case obviously being that of another Frenchman - Napoleon. Napoleon was actually taller than the average French citizen of his time, but always seemed small compared to his guard (who were understandably rather large fellows). His enemies seized on this to caricature him as an overcompensating short man, a detail that stuck in history.

Ironically, several studies (the most recent of which being a comprehensive 2007 study by the University of Central Lancashire) have shown that the so-called 'Napoleon complex' of short men being overly aggressive actually does not exist. In reality shorter men on average are no more likely to be aggressive than average sized men, while in fact it is taller men that are more likely to be aggressive.

Do Women Care about Height?

We've spoke much about men, but how does height factor in with women? The answer is not all. Not only does women's height not affect their own assessment of their leadership skills but there is also little correlation between height and both perceived and realised leadership skills in women. Preoccupation with height is largely in a male problem in the area of politics and business, and while our views on short men are still influenced by our archaic preference for the tall it will continue to be an issue for shorter men who desire to lead.

Do you consider height to be a factor in being a successful leader? Let us know in the comments!