"Blink" and the Tall CEO Argument

I've been hearing a lot about Blink lately, which I have not yet read, but sounds like a great book. While I don't doubt the truth of what Gladwell writes, I think one example he uses may be an example of more correlation than causation. I'd like to throw this out there and see what others think. Maybe I'm way off base.

One example that is commonly cited from the book is that CEOs of Fortune 500 companies tend to be six feet or taller. The assumption is that we subconsciously look for leaders who are tall because deep in our brains somewhere we associate height and authority. I'm proposing though, that ending up at the CEO spot could have more to do with sports participation, which in turn is somewhat dependent on height. I'm 6'2", and as any of you who were fairly tall growing up know, height will make up for a lack of skill and encourage coaches to give you a chance. It will also get you recruited. For example, anyone 6'5" or more can play basketball in high school, and anyone 7'0" or more can play ball at the collegiate level – regardless of skill. Coaches in these situations will take you based on your height in hopes they can develop you as a player. And not only can you play if you want to, but if you are tall like this, you will actually be recruited. You will be encouraged to come out for the team, regardless of skill level.

Now let's look at the opposite extreme. Let's say you are 5'7". Well, you can still play high school basketball, but you have to be really good to make a college team at that height because if you go against a player with similar skill who is taller, his height will get him the spot. Football is the same way. You can play receiver at 5'6", but coaches would prefer to have a 6'3" guy in the position, if one is available.

So my argument is this – the taller you are, the more likely you are to have played sports at a higher level than most people. So let's assume that we have four groups, Group 1 is average people, Group 2 is high school athletes, Group 3 is college athletes, and Group 4 is professional athletes. My theory, based soley on personal observation, is that the the average heights would work like this:

G4 > G3 > G2 > G1

And on top of that, I think this applies primarily to team sports. So in football, basketball, baseball, etc. height matters. In individual sports like tennis, golf, track, etc., it matters less. Now, what I believe is that team sports participation builds a lot of characteristics that make for a good leader. Therefore, my guess is that most CEOs played a sport at least at the high school level and probably at the collegiate level. And, this sports participation is part of what helped develop their leadership and teamwork skills, thus giving them a better shot at the CEO position later in life. So, while I'm not saying that we don't associate height with authority, I am saying there may be more to the argument (and maybe Gladwell addresses this in this book, I don't know). But, is it possible that height is a good predictor of sports participation at higher and higher levels, and that higher levels of sports participation is a good predictor of teamwork and leadership skills, which is a good predictor of attaining a CEO position?

  • WTF

    To the writer of this article:

    Really? Are you trying to info this reader that the true reason of the majority of CEOs being tall is that they played sports? Are trying to honestly present the idea that it has nothing to with the fact that tall men have throught out history been treated with more respect and have been more feared? There have not been sports forever in colleges? The first was in 1843 at Yale University, and needless to say, there were CEOs in the world before that.

  • TMan

    I’m 5’9″. I played soccer all growing up and was a lacrosse goalie in high school. I’ve played trounament paintball, ran cross country, etc. I’d say I’m pretty active and athletic.

    I think the whole CEO thing is bull. In the book it says 58% are 6 feet or taller. That’s still 42% who are shorter. Also, there were tons of important people who were short or at least average for their time. Putin is about 5’5″, Napolean 5’6″, Genghis Khan 5’1″, Mahatma Gandhi 5’3″, James Madison 5’4″, and others. There an old saying “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” Shorter guys will adapt and we’ll find ways to be even with taller guys, better personalities, cunning, hard work, intelligence, and etc.