Clarence Otis Jr., CEO of Darden Corp.

*Robert W. Livingston, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, recently wrote an article for Forbes magazine that explored the phenomena of babyfaced black CEOs in corporate America.

It’s not by accident that they are successful.

I recently conducted a study to find out what we can learn about the relatively few African-Americans who do manage to ascend to positions of senior leadership. Together with Nicholas Pearce, a Kellogg School of Management doctoral student, I asked a total of 127 non-black participants to rate photographs of some black and white chief executive officers from the 500 largest companies. We paired 10 black male CEOs with 10 white male CEOs who served before or after them at the same corporations. In addition, we included 10 white female CEOs paired with a random set of 10 white male CEOs.

The participants were asked to rate all 40 CEOs on their appearance of interpersonal warmth and what we called “babyfaceness.” We allowed some of the participants to rate the photographs on a 1 to 4 scale based on their own subjective perception of what a babyface was. We gave others specific scientific definitions and a training session on what a babyface was before they did their ratings of each face on a 1 to 4 scale. The results were the same for both groups.

Babyfaceness? It was our hypothesis that black leaders who are so successful must possess not only impeccable credentials, proven competence and tireless diligence, but also what we call “disarming mechanisms”–physical, psychological or behavioral traits that lessen perceptions of threat, fear, envy or resentment. Disarming mechanisms send a message: I am not a danger to you. I am not a barbarian breaching the gates of Rome. Disarming mechanisms come in many forms, but we specifically examined whether the physical trait of babyfaceness is related to the success of black male leaders.

Interesting report.