The bald truth about CEOs

CEOs seem to instinctively know that it's better to be authoritative than indecisive. They know about the vision thing and the passion thing. They even know a few leadership lessons that aren't taught in business school — such as, it helps to be tall.

But an unscientific survey of USA TODAY's panel of CEOs and other evidence suggest that baldness might be a blind spot for many.

CEOs say being bald doesn't impede success and, given a choice, it's better to be bald than short. So widely held is this conventional wisdom among top executives that when asked to choose, most CEOs say they'd take 2 more inches of height over a full head of Robert Redford hair.

Even most bald CEOs, including many who are both tall and bald, would choose to be taller. "Lack of hair can only mean the brain is busy with more important functions," says Murray Martin, the 5-foot-8 CEO of $5.7 billion Pitney Bowes, who is being generous when he describes his hair as "thinning."

"I don't believe it ever (affected) my career. But as I progressed, it became less and less of an issue until it is now a point of pride and a personal branding advantage," says Steve Carley, the 6-foot-1 bald CEO of El Pollo Loco. "It encourages approachability."

As smart as they are, CEOs have been known as a group to get it wrong. It now appears that was the case just months ago when they almost universally said they didn't see a recession looming. Could they also be collectively clueless about hair vs. height?

It's not that being short is a career launching pad. Plenty of studies have found that taller men make more money, gain more success and attract more women. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs are 6-foot-2 and taller — vs. just 4% of all men.

Bald men are a much bigger slice of the general population. The International Society of Hair Restoration Surgery estimates that 50% of Caucasian men older than 45 and 60% older than 60 have clinical balding. Stress can cause hair to fall out, so all things being equal, the percentage of bald leaders might be expected to be a little higher than average. Yet:

•If elected, John McCain would be the first bald U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower. To be fair, baldness, unlike height, can be a matter of opinion. At 71, some might say McCain is doing OK in the hair department for his age group. But pictures of 42 presidents indicate that less than 25% were bald or balding, when statistically it should be at least half.

•There are 41 male state governors. Those who are bald or balding make up less than 20% and, yes, that includes the aptly named John Baldacci of Maine. The hair-loss club dropped a governor Wednesday when New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced he would resign after being linked as a client to a prostitution ring. He will be replaced by Lt. Gov. David Paterson, who is not bald. Only 10% to 20% of the 84 male U.S. senators are bald or balding.

•Among corporate CEOs, women run four of the largest 125 companies on the Fortune 500. USA TODAY examined photos of the men and considered about 25% to be bald or balding. Bald men running the nation's largest companies include Chevron's David O'Reilly, Home Depot's Francis Blake, Morgan Stanley's John Mack and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein.

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