I Love Tall People

Does Size Matter When You Reach the Heights of Power?
by Lisa Gutierrez
The Kansas City Star
April 30, 2007

The tallest mayor in the Kansas City metro?

It's not who you might think.

The media made much ado over the 6 feet 8 inches of Mark Funkhouser, who will be inaugurated Kansas City’s new mayor on Tuesday.

Photos of the Lincolnesque leader showed him standing more than head and shoulders above the crowd.

But Hizzonor is not the tallest mayor in town: He’s two inches shorter than Carl Gerlach, the mayor of Overland Park. In fact, some colleagues claim that Gerlach is the tallest mayor in the country.


Stats on local mayors reveal that many of our male civic leaders are above average in stature. At least seven are 6 feet or taller, compared to the 5-foot-9 1/2 -inch average height of the U.S. male.

At 5-foot-6, Karen Messerli (mayor of Lee’s Summit and one of the few female mayors in the metro) is 2 inches taller than the average American woman.

Peggy Dunn, Leawood’s mayor, hopes that she’s not the shortest mayor in town at 5 feet 3 inches. Alas, she might be.

What's with all tall mayors? Is there something in the water here?

"I would guess that it's mostly happenstance," Gerlach said.

Not so fast, Mr. Mayor. Some researchers might not agree.

They’ve done studies that show tall people in many arenas -- politics included -- are more successful than their shorter counterparts. Folks such as chief executive officers and even presidents tend to be taller than the average woman or man.

According to the Presidential Height Index, an online tracker of such info, the taller presidential candidate has won almost every race since the advent of TV.

Sizing up the situation

"If you told me that the mayors around Kansas City were taller than average, I wouldn't be totally surprised," said Dan Silverman, when we called to tell him just that.

A few years ago Silverman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that how well you’re paid is sharply related to how tall you were when you were 16: Adults who were taller as teens earn more as adults.

But why? And why are so many people in power positions taller than average?

"The reason for that is less clear," said Silverman, now an assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan. "I would say our research and other research suggests that this is not really due to being tall per se. We’re not sure what it is, but the evidence is increasingly clear that it’s not simply for being tall, but they have something different."

That something different might be that we tend to view tall people as leaders.

Imagine, Silverman said, that you are sitting in a classroom.

"I bring in someone and introduce him as John Smith, the president of the university. Then later, after he leaves, I ask "How tall do you think John is?"

"Then I do that same exercise with someone else . . . who I introduce as a custodian or a post-doc. Your assessment as a class will be that the one who was introduced as the president is presumed to be tall."

Psychologists hint that it might be our primitive beginnings that cause us to assign leader-like qualities to tall people: The taller, thus bigger, the person, the better they’re able to protect and defend the rest of the group.

David Bower isn’t convinced that height played any role in his election as Raytown’s new mayor earlier this month. Bower, who is 6 feet 7 inches tall, won handily, beating six other candidates.

“I know nothing about the psychology of height,” said Bower, a senior project manager and principal in the architectural firm of HOK. "I have no idea why people voted for me, but I don’t think it was because of how tall I am."

If there were predictors in their childhoods such as high self-esteem, as studies have shown, that suggested that someday they would grow up to be leaders, Gerlach and Bower aren’t aware of them.

"I steered away from dance floors because I was a miserable dancer," said Bower. "I was the world’s biggest wallflower."

So was Gerlach.

"Actually, I was a very quiet and shy youth, as I tend to be today," said the Johnson County mayor, elected in April 2005.

Gerlach opines that more than his height, maybe it was involvement in team sports, from age 6 to all the way through college when he played basketball — yes, he played basketball — at K-State that fostered his leadership instincts.

Gerlach doesn’t lord his height over people. In fact, he often jokes that “I’m only 5 feet 22 inches.”

With just-slightly-shorter Funkhouser joining the local mayoral ranks, Gerlach will finally have a colleague to see eye-to-eye with.

But Raytown’s new mayor has another thought.

Funkhouser vs. Gerlach.


That’s a hoops match-up that Bower would like to see.

“And I’ll keep score,” he said.

The Height of Power

Here's how our presidents have stacked up:

  • 5 feet 4 inches: James Madison
  • 5 feet 6 inches: Benjamin Harrison, Martin Van Buren
  • 5 feet 7 inches: John Quincy Adams, John Adams, William McKinley
  • 5 feet 8 inches: Ulysses S. Grant, William H. Harrison, James Polk, Zachary Taylor
  • 5 feet 8.5 inches: Rutherford Hayes
  • 5 feet 9 inches: Millard Fillmore, Harry S. Truman
  • 5 feet 9.5 inches: Jimmy Carter
  • 5 feet10 inches: Calvin Coolidge, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Theodore Roosevelt
  • 5 feet 10.5 inches: Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • 5 feet 11 inches: George W. Bush, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson
  • 5 feet 11.5 inches: Richard Nixon
  • 6 feet: James Buchanan, Gerald R. Ford, James Garfield, Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, James Monroe, William H. Taft, John Tyler
  • 6 feet 1 inches: Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan
  • 6 feet 2 inches: Chester Arthur, George Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Washington
  • 6 feet 2.5 inches: Bill Clinton, Thomas Jefferson
  • 6 feet 3 inches: Lyndon B. Johnson
  • 6 feet 4 inches: Abraham Lincoln

Source: heightsite.com