Bozen/Innsbruck – Former US president George W. Bush often appeared in a cowboy hat, imbuing himself with the heroism of the wild west narrative and signaling familiarity to his prospective voters. Even the absence of clothing can evoke a strong impression, as evidenced by the popular snapshots of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, fishing topless. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is known for his attention-grabbing habit of wearing lipstick and wild wigs during company meetings. Steve Jobs, founder and former CEO of Apple, distinguished himself from his formal and rigid competitors by wearing sneakers and turtleneck sweaters to the company’s product presentations. Established global banks try to signal stability and respectability: There is almost no image of JP Morgan Chase Jamie Dimon without a suit. On the other hand, it is hard to find a recent picture of former Goldman Sachs CEO Anthony Noto after he left the conservative bank towards a promising, innovative and fast-growing FinTech company.
“Clothes makes the man”
Most of these popular leaders have one thing in common: they transform clothing into a leadership tool by purposefully shaping the way they appear to us. They do this through disrupting our expectations and evaluations simply by dressing differently, thus paying tribute to the pedigreed and often observed adage: “Clothes makes the man”.
Of course, clothes do matter. Opinions we form about others are commonly based on their physical appearance. Indeed, opinions are often formed before any direct interaction even took place.
Once we have formed an impression of someone, it is difficult to change it. Clothes express status, roles, and affiliation to groups, convey information about values, moods, and attitudes. Clothing, therefore, is a nonverbal cue that signals a great amount of information about its wearer. We can actively use clothes to signal certain attributes. Whatever values we are delivering, we use our style choices to enhance a specific message.
Do clothes also make the leader?
The significance of clothing’s signaling characteristics in the context of interpersonal judgement is scientifically well documented. Yet, the importance of dressing according to how leadership qualities are perceived is still under-investigated. In our recent experimental research, we shed light on this topic and found interesting results.
In our first scenario, we showed various employee groups managers wearing different sets of clothing (plain dark t-shirt, jeans, white sneakers), smartly (white shirt, black dress pants, black dress shoes), or formally (we added a black suit jacket and a blue tie). Employees perceived managers in suits as more prototypical of their leadership role than those dressed less formal. But formal dress alone did not make managers appear more dominant, trustworthy, or charismatic in employees’ eyes. Consequently, we asked ourselves how deviant clothing affects the impression of a manager.
An organization’s culture is linked to an innate institutionalized aesthetic code that may directly reflect its employees’ clothing preferences. The more formal an organization’s culture, the more formalized their dress code will be. Hence, one might assume that the ability of leaders to use a certain clothing preference to signal their leadership style or capability may demonstrate their dominant position and conformation to accepted norms.
However, concerning the named charismatic leaders, quite the contrary holds true. Leaders who are good at drawing the media’s attention are, in fact, often excellent at deviating from such norms. The idea of context-specific appearance is violated by leaders intentionally in order to stimulate a specific and desired perception among their employees. By purposefully disregarding normative expectations towards a predetermined dress code, they signal that they do not fear the possible repercussions for deviating from the norm. Appearing to stand out from a given context might assign a leader a more salient role and might make them appear more charismatic.
In scenario two, we again showed employees various managers wearing different clothing styles. However, this time, we asked them whether they thought these managers led in a more formal or informal corporate culture. Interestingly, employees perceived managers in formal and smart attire as more charismatic in more flat structures with a rather organic corporate culture.
In highly formalized corporate cultures, deviating from the norm by wearing less formal attire makes managers stand out, as does wearing formal attire in more flexible organizational cultures. These managers dare what others do not, and in doing so, attract more attention than they would normally do. Through this, they appear more charismatic to their employees and gain more approval. Therefore, deviating from the so-called clothing norm may act as a signal of enhanced leadership ability purely because they decided to act against the obvious.
Leaders must influence their employees, motivate them, and coordinate them in pursuit of a shared goal. Charisma and leadership are typically both strong predictors of organizational success, and a leader’s clothing influences both. To manage the impression you leave on your employees and communicate your personal brand by signaling the values you stand for, dress accordingly. So how will you suit up for work tomorrow?
Thomas K. Maran & Sascha Kraus
Maran is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Innsbruck since 2021 and an External Lecturer at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano.
Kraus is a Professor of Management at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano since 2020.