I think that most of us, consciously, would say intelligent. Don't we all want our leaders to have the intellect to understand the challenges we face, to navigate through the tough political waters, to have the knowledge needed to create strategies that assure us success? Our logical, rational minds respond 'Yes, of course'.
However, a recent Dutch study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that, when given a choice between a leader that looked 'healthy' and one looking 'intelligent', almost 70% of all respondents selected the healthier looking leader. In fact, both leaders they viewed were the same individual, each photo simply being a digitally altered version designed to portray more healthy or intelligent characteristics.
"Here we show that it always pays for aspiring leaders to look healthy, which explains why politicians and executives often put great effort, time and money in their appearance," study lead author Brian Spisak, assistant professor at the department of management and organization at VU University Amsterdam in the NetherlandsAlthough our conscious mind may use rational thinking in making its decisions, it appears that we are still more influenced by our reptilian brain than we may like to believe. Our reptilian brain is the most primitive part of the human brain, the part that handles our instinctive responses and reflexes, some of which are millions of years old. It is the part of our brain that is essential to, and focused on, our basic survival, overseeing functions like breathing and heart rate, but also driving your desire for food or sex and responding to perceived threats and rewards.
It's this most primitive part of our brains that receives information first, making it our primary behavioural driver. This means, when considering the Dutch study above, that participants viewing the two potential leaders are influenced first by the reptilian part of their brain which wants to follow the healthier looking specimen... because that is a key trait necessary for survival.
From an evolutionary perspective this would make sense. In the early days of man you couldn't afford to get sick, there was no medicine. You needed to be able to run down your prey and out run any predators. You needed to be strong to be seen as necessary to the 'group'; strong enough to be Alpha or be seen as useful to one.
We may have come a long way but our reptilian brains are still wired to respond in ways that served us, and saved us, in the past. These responses still continue to influence choices that we make, in ways that we don't always control or recognise. The conscious and more logical parts of our brains simply form reasonable explanations for the actions and decisions that our reptilian brain makes.
I have long coached my clients on the need to project a positive energy through their body language. To be able to convince someone that you are not just willing but able to take action and see a project through, you must demonstrate it through your body. It is through the subtle cues of the body that your credibility is established, that people will believe and trust in your ability to deliver. Try selling someone on your ability to take action from a slumped position! Your reptilian brain is wired to pick up on the subtle cues derived from body language and will respond according to what it perceives. Conveying a strong, positive energy appeals to the survivalist mentality of your primitive brain.
Looking 'healthy' is a visible source of that positive energy. People are instinctively attracted to it. If you want to get ahead then research has provided yet another reason for you to get healthy. Break out the walking shoes, learn to love kale... they might just be the best things you do for your career.