The Leader 'Prototype'
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The Leader 'Prototype'

Due to our evolutionary history, a leader prototype has become ingrained in our psychology. This article deals with that prototype.

Ancestral Preferences

Understanding how the notion of leadership has evolved (see The Development of Leadership), can help in explaining some observations about present day leaders. Three of these observations will be briefly discussed in this article:

  • Tall people are generally conceived as more adequate leaders.
  • People in leadership positions try to look physically strong.
  • People are more inclined to choose someone from their own ‘group’ as leader.

Tall Leaders

It is a well-known fact that in politics, the tallest candidates have a higher chance to be chosen. In several experiments, people are shown two photo’s of the same person. One of these photographs showed him or her as a tall person, the other one as a short person. In almost all cases, the tall version will be chosen as leader.

The same can be noticed in experiments with children. Without any notion of politics, they are quite adept at predicting the outcome of elections, solely based on the height of the candidates.

Apparently, we have a sort of leader ‘prototype’ in our heads, some innate concept of how a leader is supposed to look like. Nowadays, a tall person doesn’t necessarily make a better leader, but in our ancestral past, tall and strong men were more able to solve many of the problems our ancestors encountered.

Strong Leaders

A second observation is that leaders like to be perceived as physically adequate. In these modern times, however, physical strength is no longer a primary requirement for good leadership. Influence and intelligence are much more appropriate these days.

And yet, to adhere to the prototype of a good leader, many of the world’s most important political leaders do their best to be perceived as physically strong.

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A third observation is that people are much more inclined to choose leaders that look like them. In experiments with university students, it has been found that students chose someone with less leadership skills than other candidates simply because he or she came from the same university.

Human beings are very ‘group-focused’, leading to a constant, mostly subconscious, ‘us against them’ mind state. This is why people tend to favor a less adequate candidate from their ‘group’ over a better suited candidate from ‘the others’.

The roots of this preference is, again, found in our ancestral environment. In those days, between group conflicts often occurred. So, our ancestors chose a leader from their group, someone they could trust, rather than an outsider.


  • Judge, T.A. & Cable, D.M. (2004). The Effect of Physical Height on Workplace Success and Income: Preliminary Test of a Theoretical Model. Journal of Applied Psychology. 89(3), pp. 428 – 441.
  • Sorokowski, P. (2009). Politicians’ height as an indicator of their popularity. European Journal of Social Psychology. 40(7), pp. 1302 – 1309.
  • Van Vugt, M. & Hart, C.M. (2004). Social identity as social glue: The origins of group loyalty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 86, pp. 583 – 598.

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Comments (1)

good article