Has the rise of the Power Geek shortened the height of our leaders?

The Telegraph 6 months ago

If Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in Congress becomes historically memorable it will be for two reasons. The first is that it was largely free of any content that was actually memorable (a bit like the social network he invented, you might say). The second is that Zuck was seated on what appeared to be a child’s booster seat.

Zuckerberg is not especially tall – he’s 1.71m, or about 5’7”. Probably not the kind of height you’d remark upon if you met him. But definitely on the short side of normal. And something you certainly would remark upon if he really had chosen to augment it with a cushion.

Naturally, the online narrative pretty much wrote itself. When he’s not subverting democracy for fun and profit, so the tweets read, Zuck is desperately self-conscious about being a short-arse. In fact, he probably has such a complex about it that this is what drove him to build his empire.

Yeah, that’ll be it.

Leave aside the common-sense explanation that the cushion was for comfort during a long hearing, that he may have back problems, and that, if he really were paranoid about his height, he probably wouldn’t draw attention to it with a cushion that looks like something a toddler would use.

Until the 90s, the traditional model for many leaders was an academic high-achiever who was also a sportsman – a kind of alpha male with brains. But the tech revolution of the late 90s saw the rise of the Power Geek – and suddenly there was a model for success that had far less do with physical prowess

For me all this raises some interesting questions though – are CEOs and political leaders getting shorter? And does this mean the short are about to inherit the earth?

You only have to look around the world to see an abundance of short guys at the top. Vladimir Putin is not a tall man. Some say he’s 5’7” and others say far less (his evasiveness in photos suggests the others may have a point). At 5’9”, Emmanuel Macron is tall by the standards of recent French politicians (Sarkozy was 5’5”, Hollande 5’7”). Viktor Orbán is 5’8”. Martin Sorrell is 5’4”. And Jeff Bezos is the same height as the Zuck – as is Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein.

For years, the received wisdom has been that tall guys get to the top. There are innumerable academic studies (in countries from the US to Sweden) showing that CEOs are taller than normal. US presidents average six foot (the Donald may have tiny hands but he’s 6’3”; Melania is 5’11”). Conversely, the top ranks are short on short guys: you have to go back to 1900 to find a President as short as Zuck. We really do like leaders we can look up to.

We even have a kind of ready made exception-rule (the so-called Napoleon complex) when someone short gets to the top. It’s because they’re pushy and fighting back against the genetic injustice of shortness. As John Niven put it is his novel Kill Your Friends, “Always beware the small man. He'll f*** you every time. Because they never forget, do they? All that grief they got at school. Over and over, and for the rest of their miserable short-arsed lives, someone's got to pay.”

Putin is 5'7''- perhaps less

Anyway, has this changed? My feeling is maybe… a bit. Here’s a theory. Until the 90s, the traditional model for many leaders was an academic high-achiever who was also a sportsman – a kind of alpha male with brains. But the tech revolution of the late 90s saw the rise of the Power Geek – and suddenly there was a model for success that had far less do with physical prowess.

Here it’s also worth noting that Zuck and Bezos did not rise through normal corporate hierarchies – they founded the businesses they run and so never had to go mano-a-mano with taller guys for the leadership slot. Regardless, the aspirational tech entrepreneur is very much part of our culture.

In tandem with this, we’re also seeing a lot more women in senior management roles and a more general crumbling of macho culture in business. There’s globalisation which brings westerners greater exposure to countries where people (and their leaders) are on average, shorter.

Here, I suppose I should declare a personal interest. I’m on the short side of normal myself. Perhaps a little over Zuck but definitely below Boris Johnson (who is 5’9”). Incidentally, the foreign secretary’s height has always surprised me. Johnson seems taller. But he’s a big bloke and most of the times I’ve seen him in the flesh, he’s been on a bike. Weirdly, I’ve always thought of Michael Gove as his short side-kick. But Gove is a couple of inches taller, despite his pipsqueakish image.

The master of height obfuscation, Tom Cruise

Anyway, does height still matter? Are the short inheriting the earth? My view (the perspective, perhaps from the short side of normal) is that height remains an advantage in most of life but perhaps is a less of one than it used to be. And being short is less of a disadvantage.

For those of us who are are on the short side of normal, it also matters as much as we make it matter. Until I started writing this I had never given Jeff Bezos’s height a second thought; I don’t think it even struck me when I interviewed him. But whenever I see Putin on TV I always look at the person he’s standing next to, searching for the aide with a bent knee or a semi-concealed step.

Of course, even Putin pales into insignificance compared to the master of stature-fixation and height obfuscation, Tom Cruise. As the New York based commentator Morgan Baila rather nicely puts it, “Tom Cruise is apparently 5 feet 7 inches tall. I say ‘apparently’, but the actor has spent his whole career trying to make his true height as unapparent as possible.”

It’s tempting to say that Cruise is the very model of Napoleon-complex success. Tempting, but actually unfair on Napoleon. At 5’6” the poor French Emperor was not short by the standards of the time and he was reportedly happy to be surrounded by taller officers. His shortness was probably an invention of British satirists. Tom Cruises’s chunky heels, however, are all too real.

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