Race and Leadership

October 1, 2008
Illustration by

Christopher Zacharow

Despite decades of progress for minorities in corporate settings, Americans still expect business leaders to be white, and they judge white leaders more effective than their minority counterparts. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by researchers from Duke, Northwestern University, and the University of Toronto.

Traditionally, research in this area has focused on how people respond to accepted "leadership traits," such as intelligence, goal-orientation, and charisma, or behavior such as acting in a decisive manner. But in this study, the research team, led by Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, an assistant professor of management at the Fuqua School of Business, sought to explore whether race, specifically "being white," was an attribute of people's prototypical leader.

The team conducted four experiments in which 943 undergraduate and graduate students with work experience reviewed fictitious newspaper clippings and performance reviews. Subjects then evaluated fictitious CEOs, project leaders, and division leaders.

The participants consistently assumed the leaders to be white when the race was not disclosed, even when the racial composition of the existing leaders in the organizations was described as 80 percent African American, 80 percent Hispanic American, or 80 percent Asian American. The same presumption of "whiteness" was not observed when the participants assessed non-leaders.

In an interesting turn, the researchers found no relation between the study participants' race and their impressions of the leaders' race. Participants who identified themselves as racial minorities assumed the leader to be white as often as the white participants.

"Our finding that Americans of all races associate successful leadership with being white demonstrates just how embedded this bias can be," says co-author Geoffrey Leonardelli of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

In experiments where the leader's race was identified, white leaders were judged a better match with traditional leader expectations, such as successful performance, than were racial minorities. Participants who were told that a leader was responsible for the organization's success and then asked to rate that leader's effectiveness judged white leaders to be more effective than minority leaders who had achieved the same level of success.

"Over time, people develop implicit beliefs about the traits and behaviors of leaders, and this combination of characteristics evolves into a standard called a 'leader prototype,'" Rosette says. The new study suggests that race remains a component of that prototype.