We expect a lot from our leaders. We want them to be perfect and blameless. We want them to have all the answers. We put a lot on their shoulders. So when it comes time to select our leaders, we try to give it our best to make sure that the person who will be leading us is the right one for the job.  Unfortunately, our leadership selection skills need work. We continue to fill the leadership void, at times judiciously but too often haphazardly.

The first step to getting better at selecting our leaders is to acknowledge our unconscious biases. These psychological biases are mental shortcuts for us that make the decision-making process easier but can lead to missed opportunities and poor decision-making. We have a lot of biases hardwired into our brains so it’s important that we bring these biases to the forefront when selecting our leaders.

Looking up at Our Leaders

How we select leaders should not, for example, be based on external physical characteristics. However, many of us might not be aware that we do have a tendency to appoint leaders based on the way they look, the way they dress, or the way they stand. Yet, leadership is not about who is taller or has a more commanding presence. It’s not about being popular or having charisma. It’s not even about having a high IQ or having the technical skills.

Several research studies have shown that we have the tendency to evaluate leadership abilities and competencies based on facial features, such as facial attractiveness and facial maturity.

In the Book of 1 Samuel, when the Israelites were searching for a king to rule over them, Saul was the people’s leading candidate. He was handsome, physically dominating, and stood head and shoulders above his countrymen. God, however, saw that his heart was not rightly inclined toward him and so rejected him and chose David instead. In comparison to Saul, David did not have the facial maturity nor was he as tall in stature. He just didn’t seem to have the physical characteristics that people usually look for in their leaders. But the Lord sees beyond what people see. The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God saw that David was a man after God’s heart who would do the will of God (Acts 13:22).

It is a well-known phenomenon that many of the leaders we put in position are head and shoulders above others. About two-thirds of presidential candidates are taller than average. And in two-thirds of all US presidential elections, the taller candidate won. If you look at some of the global leaders, they tend to be taller than the average height in their respective countries. In the corporate world, many of the Fortune 500 CEOs seem to be taller than average. In fact, only 4 percent of Americans are over the height of six foot two, and yet, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Blink, over 30 percent of CEOs are taller than that. A 2004 research study by Timothy A. Judge of the University of Florida and Daniel M. Cable of the University of North Carolina found that there is indeed a correlation between height and salary. The taller the person, the more money he or she makes. We have the implicit bias to assign taller people to higher positions, hence higher pay.

Unexpected Leaders

Mother Teresa undoubtedly was a great leader—a book title even referred to her as a “CEO.” But her leadership is one that goes against the grain of our conception of leaders. She was not tall nor was she built big or strong.  She didn’t sport a fancy business suit but instead wore the same garment every single day. And yet, look at how effective she was as a leader. Look at how much God has blessed her in leading an international organization that grew rapidly. In their book Gracious Christianity: Living the Love We Possess, authors Douglas Jacobsen and Rodney J. Sawatsky wrote, “Mother Teresa was far from beautiful in the glamour magazine-sense of the word but she was clearly one of the most attractive people in the world because of her moral beauty and compassion for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta’s slum.” It was her graciousness and kindness; it was the authenticity of her heart, so pure, so holy, and so full of prayer, that she was able to successfully lead and grow the Missionaries of Charity.

And then there is Saint Francis of Assisi—the Little Poor Man of Assisi. We have all seen a statue or an image of Saint Francis of Assisi. In many of the representations, he’s dressed in beggar’s clothes and you could just tell that he didn’t care much for his physical appearance. There is an often-told story of a conversation between Saint Francis and Brother Masseo, one of the original twelve followers of Francis. Brother Masseo was tall, handsome, and considered to be one of the best preachers of the new budding order. One day, Brother Masseo tried to test Francis’s humility and so, half-jokingly, he asked Francis:

“Why you? Why are people always after you?”

Saint Francis, curious to know the reason behind the question, replied, “What do you mean, Brother Masseo?”

Brother Masseo explained: “I mean, why is everyone running after you? Why does everyone want to see you or hear you and obey you everywhere we go? You’re not a handsome man. You’re not a learned man. You’re not a nobleman. So why is everybody after you?”

Upon hearing Brother Masseo’s question, Saint Francis rejoiced in humility, lifted up his gaze toward heaven, knelt down, thanked the Lord, and began to address Brother Masseo’s question. Saint Francis responded by quoting 1 Corinthians 1:27:

“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” Praise God that I am none of these you described. God chose me for there is no other more sinful and more unworthy. God is showing the path to simplicity and truth and that He does this through such lowly dirt as me.”

The Heart of a Leader

In a society that is obsessed with beauty and physical appearance, we have to be more mindful of our biases so that we become more judicious when we select our leaders. We subconsciously use socially-constructed bias and superficial criteria, and that can blind us and miss the next Saint Francis or Mother Teresa. Let us not get fixated on the seductions of external appearances and instead focus more on what is genuinely in the hearts of our leaders.

It can be challenging in a society that often dictates what must be perceived to be good and beautiful but we know that we can do better and make better decisions. We can get better by not falling prey to our biases. We cannot keep taking these mental shortcuts and lazy ways. Instead, we need to make the effort to be more discerning in our judgements. Take the time to pray and ask God for guidance in selecting our next leaders. Pray and ask God to help us recognize our biases. Pray for God’s wisdom so that we are able to see and hear what God wants us to see and hear.

Photo courtesy of BBC.