When white leaders succeed, people often say it is because they are competent. When black leaders succeed, people say it happened despite their incompetence. At least, that’s what two business-school professors found after reviewing news coverage of 113 top college quarterbacks—generally viewed as team leaders—in the 2007 football season.
According to the study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, media reports commended successful white quarterbacks for their intellectual prowess, while black quarterbacks got credit for being athletic. Deep-seated stereotypes that black leaders were intellectually inferior also came to light when the athletes performed poorly, with failure attributed to problems like inadequate decision-making skills, not a weak arm or poor agility.
The findings carry over to the C-suite, where the prototypical leader is white, says Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a management professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and co-author of the study on racial bias.
Prof. Rosette says that when successful organizations are led by black managers, the strong performance is attributed to broad market factors over which the leader had no control, or to what she calls “compensatory stereotypes,” such as humor or public-speaking skills, which would make up for any lack in competence.