Most of my girlfriends who make more than $100K a year were cheerleaders in school. We are from all over the United States. We are from all different types of companies. Only a few of us can do the splits. Yet we all bounced in short skirts and cheered for boys.

I chalked this up to coincidence until I conducted further studies:

Study #1 The education study
I was never the kid who got A’s. I was the kid who developed arcane strategies to pass class. An example: For my high school junior thesis — which was an amazing (for a high school junior) 15 pages — I leveraged my debate-team evidence on torture weapons in Somalia to compose a paper on ethics, which was not particularly well written but was well received because of the perceived time spent researching.

After hiding my academic mediocrity for years, I was gathering bios for a business plan when I realized that I was surrounded by business geniuses who had been mediocre students. I removed everyone’s education credentials from the plan — even those for the guy who was very high up in a prominent worldwide company.

Conclusion: Success in business and success in school are not linked and do not require the same skills.

Study #2 The personality study
When I worked in software marketing my company had a training day. The whole company piled into a hotel that was too fancy for an all-company meeting unless there was something bad coming.

The CEO announced that one of the most common downfalls of fast-growing companies was poor communication. He told us that the corporate psychologist on stage with him would make sure our company did not have this problem.

Then the psychologist gave us all personality tests.

We circled words. We filled in boxes. We tried not to look at the page of the person next to us when the person next to us might notice.

We graded ourselves because the psychologist promised, “There are no wrong answers. We’re finding out who we are so we can communicate that to our teammates.”

I glanced at the CEO to make sure that given the choice of perfection or power, he also chose power: I didn’t want to admit to power mongering if the other power mongers would not.

The results, surprisingly, were not surprising. Once we understood the basics, everything fell into place. The psychologist told us that people are motivated by one of four areas:

1. Power and achievements
2. Friendships and other relationships
3. Having fun
4. Keeping peace and finding truth

Conclusion: All senior managers at our company were motivated by power and achievements — except the VP for sales, who was motivated by relationships.

Cheerleader conclusion
After analyzing these two in-depth studies, I have concluded that while a position on the dean’s list does not necessarily signal a good business career ahead, a position on the cheerleading squad does.

A girl who joins the cheerleading squad is a performer, a leader, and has a nose for where the power is. In high school, money is not the issue — boys are. And girls on the cheerleading squad get more of this currency than girls on the dean’s list.

So when your daughter wants to be a cheerleader, discourage it, of course. For all the same reasons that my friends and I do not put pictures of ourselves as cheerleaders on our desks at work.

But Peggy Orenstein writes, in her New York Times article What’s Wrong with Cinderella?, that there is no discouraging girls from wanting to be princesses. So I think there is probably no discouraging girls from wanting to be cheerleaders, either. In that case, the good news is that the cheerleader thing is a sign of good things to come.

22 replies
  1. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Interesting article. High school cheerleading didn’t exist when I was growing up in Vancouver (I doubt it exists in any serious way now, either). The stereotype of cheerleaders here in Canada is the blond bimbo or losers (even if that impression is wrong).

    I think there was an attempt to create a cheerleading squad one year of my high school tenure, but it was a joke. It wasn’t the charismatic athletic girls who tried out, but instead those who had failed to make the field hockey or basketball teams and were too shy to speak to boys on their own. The squad failed pretty quick.

    When I went to grad school in the US, watching the cheerleaders was an eye opener. These women were incredible athletes and highly charismatic — two traits that have always been business and power-achieving enablers, incidently.

    My point is that perhaps cheerleading is only an indicator of future success so long as it is seen by others as well as the cheerleaders as a power enabler. This is not a universal.

    Another question for you, if the milennial generation is opting out of the whole corporate rat race scene, did they also opt out of the whole cheerleading-to-power scene? And, if the audience loses respect for that path, then young women after status might have to try another avenue.

    * * * * * *

    Wendy,

    You bring up really interesting questions. I wish someone would write a cheerleader demography blog to answer all these.

    I actually thought about the millenial issue you bring up. My friends and I grew up at the same time that Title IX did. (Quickie history lesson: Title IX in the US says that you have to have as many sports opportunities for girls as you do for boys, so no more high schools that only offer cheerleader-friendly sports like football.) So the opportunities for girls to play sports has grown a lot duruing the last thirty yeas, and maybe cheerleading means something different to Gen Y.

    Maybe the six-figure pom-pom girl is one of Gen X’s contributions to the workplace :)

    -Penelope

  2. stever
    stever says:

    yeah, I’m with Wendy. I was born and raised in Vancouver — my highschool didn’t have any football or hockey teams.. we had basketball and volleyball. For those events there were no cheerleaders.

    Great article though. I come from a semi-successful family where nobody has post-secondary education and married into a family that is very much into that. Depending on the field you want to get into, I’ve always looked at college and university as a name to recommend you.

    Much like getting a job from a friend’s friend, if I don’t have a friend’s friend in the field you want, you can have a school vouch that you know your stuff.. so far this has worked out quite well for me.

  3. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    I agree with the first poster. I came away from this blog note with a sense of dread. That’s probably because I was a certified ‘band fag’. Could I contribute a blog post as to how being a former band fag has helped me to:
    * work collaboratively
    * tolerate tone deafness
    * similarly tolerate a wide variety of geeks, musicians, hangers on and other manifestations of diversity
    * taught me how to march in a straight line when necessary, and when to take a solo
    * appreciate the absurd and uselessness

    I’m surprised, Penelope, that someone with your tacit Buddhist leanings seem to be celebrating the pursuit of power as an appropriate goal. You may well be right with your Cheerleader Coefficient and perhaps it’s a necessary corrective in a world of cheerleader = bimbo, but I’m not sure what’s so great about pursuing power for its own sake.

    — Resolute band geek

    * * * * * *

    Margaret,

    This is one of those comments that makes me wish we were having coffee instead of commenting over a blog. I feel like we’d have a lot to talk about. But I’ll try to fit everything into a few paragraphs.

    It was interesting to me in the personality testing that when you give me those four categories, I am an acheiver, and acheivers go with power mongers.

    I don’t think this actually contradicts my “Buddhist leanings” that you see in me. I think it’s really that I want to be great at what I do. That’s really important to me. And we know from the research about Flow that we are happiest doing stuff we have a lot of talent for.

    When I do something for a while and see that I can’t acheive any more than I have, I do something else. (For example, professional beach volleyball — I was ranked 17th. After a while I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to get myself any higher. So I moved on.) I am thinking that maybe the cheerleading is a sign of this sort of predisposition.

    Sidenote: Cheerleaders learn to work collaboratively and appreciate a straight line, too :)

    -Penelope

  4. olivier
    olivier says:

    Funny article.

    The analysis are obviously biased here:
    as a cheerleader you probably have a much higher percentage of friends cheerleaders than the average woman. And as a “more than 100k” professional you probably have more friends making more than 100k than the average. So no wonder you can reach these conclusions from your experience.

    It would be interesting to know:

    1) what percentage of cheerleaders end up making more than 100k with respect to the average population, of course matched for education and demographics.

    2) what percentage of people making more than 100k were cheerleaders compared with the matched population, and so on…

    And even if any >0 or

  5. PunditMom
    PunditMom says:

    Yes, we’ve got the cheerleader AND princess thing covered ion our household, even though I struggled against it (I obviously finally gave in!)

    The good news on seven-year-old R.’s cheerleading interest is this — she likes Kim Possible (a Disney Channel cartoon for the uninitiated) — Kim is a cheerleader AND a crimfighter AND a straight A student, so there is some redeeming value!

  6. Laura Vanderkam
    Laura Vanderkam says:

    I read an interesting article recently that a number of pharmaceutical firms were making a point of hiring former cheerleaders. Why? They’re peppy (good for sales!), athletic, generally good looking and, hey, probably any doc who was a nerd in high school appreciates being fawned upon by the cheerleaders now. That said, while these may be qualities that are key for succeeding in a corporate ladder-climbing environment, I’m not sure they’ll continue to be quite so valuable as we all split off into our own free agent worlds. You can’t march to your own drummer on the cheerleading squad (at least, not without getting accidentally kicked in the head during an ill-timed jump).

    – Laura (former junior high cheerleader)

  7. David Perry
    David Perry says:

    Leaders are leaders no matter where they come from. Interestingly enough cheerleaders – especially head cheerleaders – are rock solid leaders. At least the ones I’ve met.

    It’s not where you start accumulating your leadership experience – it’s that you start AND most people never do.

    Cheerleaders have a leg up on band geeks or chess club members or even debate team members and ‘spectators”. Why? Because being a cheerleader requires that you put aside what ‘society” sees as “valuable” and do what you believe is right – at least for you. That takes courage and conviction.
    Which is something they have in common with leaders.

    * * * * * *

    Wow. I really love this comment. i don’t really have anything to add. Except that I wish I had written it myself.   – Penelope

     

  8. Dale
    Dale says:

    I hated this post,

    at first,
    primarily because I felt it went against many things I believe are “right.” I have/had the preconception that cheerleaders are shallow self-absorbed individuals, who crave attention and who capitalize on the one thing that they have that most others do not – looks.
    I was looking at it on a superficial level. I now realize that the real message in this blog is as true as anything that I have ever heard! The skills, personality traits, attitude, and work ethic required to be a good cheerleader are those required to become a success in life – not accounting for luck.
    My wife is constantly trying to encourage our children to show what they know, not to be afraid to perform in front of others – in any situation, sports, spelling bees, music, etc.
    The variables that surround these situations are the same as those inherent in cheerleading, but the most important in my opinion are focus, competitiveness, and confidence.
    We all have friends who achieve more than we give them credit for being able to achieve, and in most cases I believe the unaccounted for variables were focus, competitiveness, and confidence. Traits that I have in very short supply.

  9. Dave
    Dave says:

    This reminded me of a funny event back during the dot-com boom.

    Working at a big (now defunct) Web consultancy, I was assigned to work with a (now defunct) triple-play cosmetics firm (mail order, Web, bricks).

    At my first meeting with the client, I found myself the only guy at a table with eight very energetic, visionary, enthusiastic, talented and accomplished women. (Tough assignment.)

    At one point–I don’t remember how it came up–the VP asked, “How many of you were cheerleaders?”

    I was amazed when seven of the eight raised their hands–and the exception had been the homecoming queen.

    That “empty-headed blonde” stereotype of cheerleaders has no traction in today’s world.

  10. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    don’t you mean the “dot-pom-pom” boom? : )

    Also, cheerleaders and empty-headed blondes are two different animals. I for one am a short, squat brunette trapped in a tall blonde body.

  11. David Perry
    David Perry says:

    Cheerleading is not just for the ladies, hear are a few famous American leaders who where cheerleaders: President George W. Bush , Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Aaaron Spelling, Michael Douglas and Samuel L. Jackson.

  12. Alan
    Alan says:

    Most people around me with six and seven figure incomes were academic overachievers. Most of them are in different areas of the financial services industry and they are both male and female. Of those who own their own businesses and were not academic overachievers, they either came from some degree of wealth (new and old) or their business partners did. Not all of them are particularly motivated, either. They just had opportunities that their employees didn’t.

    Also, the cheerleaders at my college-town high school were often underachievers. They were from predominantly (if not exclusively) black, poor families while the rich white girls played soccer and other sports. In addition, the jocks who went on to good jobs were also in all AP courses, nerding it up next to the less athletic nerds.

    And lastly, a lot of people change significantly between high school and age 30. I know at least one stoner high school drop out now in graduate school at a top university. I can think of three women off the top of my head who were social rejects in high school and yet went on to highly successful careers in finance, architecture and advertising.

    Clearly people interpret things differently depending on who they are surrounded by, and apparently my experience has been very different from yours.

    I do see your point. However, I think you’ll find that successful people come from many backgrounds and have a variety of motivations. One investment banker I know only does it because his wife won’t stop having kids and he’s a pushover. Other people I know just fell into their high-powered jobs. Different strokes for different folks.

  13. cindy@staged4more
    cindy@staged4more says:

    it makes a lot of sense (disclaimer: i am not a cheerleader. don’t have the personailty, sorry). i teach yoga in addition to stage people’s homes for sale or to live or work. i started taking over a class at a spa several months ago and the numbers have been small which made the numbers-driven owners very concerned since they make less money. (it was honestly the worse phone call i had ever received and very hurtful to hear that “you are a negative person and maybe this is not such a good fit, etc. etc.” i was horrified. i am always proud of my steller job performance and the odd thing was students love the class because it’s small and intimate)

    because of this shocking talk, i started to talk to students about it to see how they like the class. just simply chatting made their energies a lot warmer.

    it got me thinking..

    several months ago, i had lost 2 family members in the same week, and i was a wreck. (i am still a wreck, but a little bit less of a wreck). perhaps i was giving out negative energy to the students when i first retunred to work. and it made uncomfortable for the students.

    anyway, my point is that why it makes sense to me is that cheerleaders tend to have great relationships with people who surround them because they are naturely positive people who make others feel welcome and comfortable, therefore more likely to do business with them. my experience made me realize that even though i am not a cheerleader type, but there are still things i can do to make people feel welcome and want to do business with me. a lot of it depending on my attitudes.

    cheers,

    cindy

    * * * * * * *

    Right, Cindy. I think it’s important to realize that you don’t have to be an outgoing, cheerleader type to be someone people want to do business with. You Just have to be comfortable and positive.

    -Penelope

  14. DuryleGirl
    DuryleGirl says:

    I LOVED this blog. I am a former cheerleader myself and have found that all of my experience in cheerleading did better prepare me for corporate life. Now, honestly, not all of my peers went on to pursue careers. Many of them are token “trophy wife’s”. I was a co-captain of my varsity squad my senior year, and I defintely think it helped to make me a more collaborative, positive, contagiously enthusiastic leader, in the position I am in today.

  15. Tom Gurney
    Tom Gurney says:

    I enjoyed the post and as a Brit, maybe i can offer an opinion from an outsider, as we don’t really have such an equivalent at our schools.
    I feel those who are involved in teams are often naturally sociable and find it easy to build relationships with others, which i guess is crucial in business.
    Alot of other skills needed are also not so much things that can be learnt, but natural talents. These may develop as a child, but not in the classroom.
    School can teach you theoretical skills but experience comes elsewhere.

  16. Timothy Waters
    Timothy Waters says:

    I hate to say it but more and more I come away from this blog shaking my head thinking “does Gen X,Y,Z whatever REALLY buy this?”

    Women, in a room with other women in the workplace, will lie. Just like every other person in business making > 6 figures, was CEO, or whatever. Our society, ever changing and ever faster changing, remains a society. Of people. People, believe it or not, share a lot of the same behaviours. Highest with the Gen X,Y,whatevers is clearly “bullshit” and “self-absorbtion”.

    Some cheerleaders will be successful. A lot are just taking advantage of something they have nothing to do with, a roll of the genetic dice, …..Bit tits. Or these days, big round butt.

    On one hand peneleope you talk about not having your identity, worth, dependence blah blah blah depend on a man yet you constantly talk about using your looks (again something you had NOTHING to do with, so it ain’t something to brag about, nor be proud about) to achieve some goal or advantage and by your own admission usually end up in bed with one of the “targets of your ‘look at my sexy bod’ strategies”. Then they decide to support your venture.

    Really… I’m stunned at the idiocy (however driven, educated, bright, cocky, self-absorbed, attention whore) the next generation is….

    Looks are an assest…FOR WOMEN. Its certainly an effective strategy to use said looks (sex) to ones advantage (just like advertising, do you think the car show girls are to be admired? Are they intelligent? Breaking new ground, changing the workplace?). But it damn sure ain’t something be proud of, it ain’t clever, intelligent, bright, out of the box thinking or anything other than using the techniques of the OLDEST PROFESSION IN THE WORLD. New?

    Honestly people, grow up.

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