It’s Better At The Top

The Higher You Go, the Less Stress You Feel

When the renowned Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky began to measure the impact of stress in baboon society in Africa — research that has continued more than three decades — he made an unexpected discovery. Baboons, which live in large, closely knit social groups, exhibited very clear hierarchical behaviors. Large dominant males sat at the top of the hierarchy, and those lower in the pecking order were constantly harassed and abused by those higher up. By measuring the cortisol, or stress hormone, levels in these baboons, Sapolsky determined that the higher the social rank in the group, the lower the stress levels in the baboon. Life at the top, it seemed, was pretty darn cushy for the top-banana baboon.

That’s all well and good if you live on a savanna and spend much of your day foraging for fruit, having sex with willing females and snoozing while your mate picks the nits out of your fur. But how does this relate to stress levels in human primates? From the earliest days of organizational behavior research, conventional wisdom presumed that the highest-ranking leaders like chief executives, generals and political leaders carried far more stress — that unwelcome byproduct of leadership. The higher you rose in an organization, the greater the demands, and with that came peptic ulcers and long, sleepless nights. Or so it was assumed.

But recently, a study released jointly by researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of California, San Diego, revealed that high-ranking leaders displayed lower levels of stress than nonleaders. The study, conducted at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, included military officers and government officials. In testing these high-level leaders, it was discovered that, as with baboons, their cortisol levels decreased as they rose through the ranks.

As such studies are wont to do, these drew a widespread but fleeting media response. It made for a good raised-eyebrow moment but seemed to promise little response in corporate boardrooms. For aspiring leaders, however, the study set off a spark of interest and debate. If achieving the highest levels of leadership brings not only untold riches, vast power and influence, and in some cases, fame, could attaining a lofty perch bring less stress as well?

For members of the research team, the findings were provocative. James Gross, a Stanford psychology professor who specializes in research on regulating emotions, said that the researchers were as surprised as anyone by the results. “We took a close look at leaders versus nonleaders and wondered if we not only asked them how stressed they were but looked at the physiology through salivary testing that measured cortisol levels, would we see differences?” Gross explained. “There was a very clear difference between the two groups. Leaders reported less stress than nonleaders.”

The results triggered a second study of 100 more leaders in an attempt to quantify the parameters. All leaders, after all, are not the same, and expected levels of stress would certainly vary between a leader with one direct report versus someone with 1,000 people reporting to him or her.

In fact, despite such varied parameters, the trigger for stress came down to one crucial element. “The critical ingredient to having lower stress seems to be a perceived sense of control,” Gross said. “We found that the greater your level of leadership responsibility, the more control you have, the less stressed you are.”

Acknowledging that with global political and economic uncertainty rampant, stress levels are rising for everyone, the researchers asked, “If you are a leader in uncertain times, does that make you more stressed than everybody else?” The conclusion: No, because these leaders are able to assert more control over their world and have additional resources at their disposal to address the challenges.

The study said: “Occupying a position marked by a large number of subordinates and possessing substantial authority over one’s subordinates are two aspects of leadership that confer such benefits. That these positions elevate one’s psychological experience of control is not surprising; they are likely to be marked by prestige as well as objective power and influence.”

This level of social control, a personal sense of power and the ability to get people to listen to what you say are more likely to lead to lower stress levels than, say, high levels of compensation. Certainly, an executive making $30 million a year in salary, bonuses and stock options will fly a private jet, which reduces the stress of air travel. But “the critical ingredient, the kind of control that seems to affect stress, is social control,” Gross said. “This is good news for aspiring leaders. As they develop more and more leadership skills and accept more responsibility, they can look for opportunities to develop more social ties to those in their organizations, and this sense of personal power is really stress-buffering. As they move through the ranks and if they can work to develop this social intelligence, it is not only good for their careers but also for their health.”

The Whitehall Study
In fact, the Harvard-Stanford-San Diego study may not be all that groundbreaking. It is not, for example, the first of its kind. The famous Whitehall Study in Britain, which began in 1967, measured health issues and the impact of organizational rank. The Whitehall Study did not focus specifically on stress, but the parameters were strikingly close. And its conclusions were startlingly similar to those of the recent leadership study here.

The two-part Whitehall Study tracked more than 28,000 British civil servants of every rank, from top to bottom, over several decades. Despite conventional wisdom and the expectations of Sir Michael Marmot, the study‘s director, the highest-ranking workers did not have higher levels of disease-inducing stress. Indeed, Marmot‘s efforts demonstrated that between the ages of 40 and 64, civil servants at the bottom of the Whitehall hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than those at the top.

“The remarkable finding, which ran counter both to my expectations at the time and, I think, most other people’s, was, firstly, just looking at heart disease; it was not the case that people in high-stress jobs had a higher risk of heart attacks,” said Marmot in an interview at the University of California, Berkeley. “Rather, it went exactly the other way: people at the bottom had a higher risk of heart attacks.

“Secondly, it was a social gradient. The lower you were in the hierarchy, the higher the risk. So it wasn’t top versus bottom, but it was graded. And, thirdly, the social gradient applied to all the major causes of death.”

Instead of looking specifically at cholesterol levels or blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, the study illuminated the onset of all the major causes of death: heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, renal disease, stroke, cancers unrelated to smoking, as well as accidental and violent deaths.

What stands out about the Whitehall Study is that interviews with civil servants over the years pointed to the same outcomes as Sapolsky’s baboon research and Gross’s new stress study. It isn’t as much about the sheer amount of stress but rather the perceived and real absence of control by nonleaders at lower-level positions. Quoted in a Wired magazine article, Marmot noted: “Researchers call it the ‘demand--control’ model of stress, in which damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands.” If a man or woman has “a high degree of control over work, it is less stressful and will have less impact on health.”

Far-reaching Implications
Before today’s leaders lean back in their Aeron chairs and contentedly put their feet up on their desks, they must be aware that the generalizations spawned by such studies are replete with gaping plausibility holes.

For many leaders, this smacks of a chicken-and-egg situation that pushes the theoretical up against the individual realities of life at the top. For example, Rick Goings, CEO of Tupperware since 1992 and a former Navy officer, is skeptical about the Harvard-Stanford-San Diego study. “I ask myself this question, Does it mean that leadership leads to lower stress or that people who are predisposed to lower stress are better leaders?”

If you believe that leaders tend to self-select and those who successfully maneuver their way to the top do so because they handle stress far better, then the study may be little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to Goings.

A Buddhist who has been practicing transcendental meditation for 35 years, Goings doesn’t believe a leader can exert enough control over his or her environment to eliminate stress-inducing challenges.

“This is what I try to teach my direct reports,” he said. “I can’t control all of these economic circumstances. I can’t control what Chavez is doing in South America or what happened in Egypt. But I can control how I react to it. I’m not saying you don’t occasionally go into stress survival mode, but I don’t live there.”

For Goings, the absence of control is the more familiar territory but not a place that guarantees a negative experience.

“I push back on that theory,” he said. “The way my people thrive here is by building one-on-one relationships of trust. If you do that, you don’t need control. I believe that all a company is is a collection of people and the company that has the ability to recruit, develop, empower and reward the best people wins in the end.”

Goings’s theory resonates with small-business owners as well. Tom Tremblay, owner and president of the Guardair Corporation, based in Chicopee, Mass., a manufacturer of pneumatic powered tools used for industrial cleaning and maintenance, is convinced his stress levels are impacted more by his company’s profit margins than by his own sense of control.

“I think stress is inversely proportional to the level of talent in your management team,” Tremblay said. “If your margins are high enough, you can hire top talent and your stress level will go down. High margins give you the ability to pay people more and in theory, you get better talent and can attract people from a wider pool. I sleep soundly because I’ve got a good management team.”

The Minneapolis-based leadership consultant Steven Snyder agrees. In his new book, “Leadership and the Art of the Struggle,” Snyder acknowledges that with rapid advances in technology and the instantaneous results of a leader’s action, the struggle has seemingly increased at the top of organizations.

But that perception is mitigated by organizational dynamics. “What do we know about executives who rise to higher levels in an organization?” Snyder asks. “The first thing we know is it is a selection process. An individual becomes selected to higher levels of an organization based on a set of things, including the ability to adapt to the struggle. Individuals who show the ability to channel their energy in adaptive ways are able to cope with situations better than those who are not. Therefore, they get more opportunity to rise to higher levels.”

According to Snyder, one of the crucial adaptive measures is the “ability to center yourself, to calm yourself down, keep your emotions from getting in the way.” To this end, he is urging aspiring leaders to embrace centering processes like meditation and exercise.

Researchers have found convincing evidence that executives who embrace a prescription of more exercise and better eating habits not only reduce stress but improve their leadership performances. Studies indicate that executives who exercised regularly had significantly higher ratings from their peers. Higher energy levels, increased productivity and better motivation were also reported outcomes, while executives who did not exercise or did so only sporadically had significantly lower ratings.

In addition, excessive body weight, which has become a global health issue, negatively influences an individual’s ability to cope with stress. Being fit and healthy mitigates the negative outcomes associated with stress.

Nina Godiwalla, founder and president of MindWorks, a Houston-based consulting firm that provides stress management, leadership and diversity training for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations, is also convinced that stress is more about the individual.

“Stress levels depend much more on the person than the position,” Godiwalla said. “If you put two people in similar roles, how they handle themselves and deal with those situations determine their stress levels. Learning how to manage your own stress is something you can control, but most people don’t see it that way. To say everyone in a leadership position is less stressed is a very big generality. What I’ve seen is the pressure to perform increases as you move up the hierarchy and the stress grows. Even if you are a CEO, you have a board of directors; so someone is always above you.”

The leadership guru Warren Bennis sees solid arguments on both sides of the debate. Ultimately, Bennis, a proponent of learned leadership, believes there is truth to the Harvard-Stanford study, but it is based on a foundational experience along with the privileges of rank.

“When you reach the top level, you’ve had to go through many success experiences in your life,” Bennis said. “Along the way, you develop support groups; you’ve seen situations before, gone through stresses earlier in your career. Many have been fired or had a child with an illness or been divorced. You develop a resilience, a hardiness and the capacity to learn from those experiences. Having overcome adversity — that is what takes these leaders to the top.”

In addition, Bennis points out, leaders find themselves with the perks of success — support, prestige, even the fawning subordinates — that all help ameliorate the stress that so many feel at lower levels in an organization.

To that end, it may be that the important question about stress isn’t how much a leader feels but how much a leader pushes that stress down into the organization. Kevin Cashman, a senior partner at Korn/Ferry International, has written extensively about stress in leaders and believes that certain types of stress — eustress (or good stress) rather than distress — can be extremely positive and a catalyst for productive behavior.

“The self-aware leader asks themselves, ‘Should I buffer or reduce stress below me via openness, collaboration, listening and empathy? Or should I drive more stress downward due to urgency or importance,’ ” Cashman said. “The less self-aware leader mindlessly transfers stress to others, unaware that their behavior is actually draining people of the energy needed to perform, further increasing the experience of pushing stress downward.”

Feeling the Calmness
For Tupperware‘s Goings, a high-performance organization is one in which stress is sporadic but where great leaders grow and start to feel the calmness of their lofty posts. “Once you feel that calmness, you are a better leader,” he said. “You can get higher in organizations of value.”

At Tupperware, there are four pillars upon which leaders are judged, Goings said.

  1. How are people as operators? Do they know how to write, to do finance, to develop the basic skills to do their job?
  2. Do they have I.L.S. — or inspirational leadership skills? “This is not about being a rah-rah person on a stage,” Goings said. “It about getting people to really trust you and being very smart.”
  3. Do they have intellectual curiosity?
  4. Have they had enough seasoning? Effective leaders grow into their roles over time and experience.

“Everybody in America who comes out of business school thinks they are ready to be a CEO,” Goings said. “I am a believer that great leaders are grown. On the journey, they learn the tools to manage stress personally. They know it’s fundamental that those at the top learn to manage stress or they won’t have success with a large organization. I break the word ‘responsibility’ into its parts — response and ability — and that’s what we try to teach people.”

Glenn Rifkin has written for The New York Times, Fast Company, Strategy + Business and many other publications.

[Sidebar]
The Ooda Loop

Rye Barcott, a special adviser to the CEO at Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C., and a former Marine captain, brings a radically different perspective to the issue of leadership and stress. Having commanded Marine units in Bosnia and the Horn of Africa, Barcott, now 33, found himself leading a human intelligence unit in the volatile city of Fallujah in Iraq in 2006. There, Barcott encountered a type of stress that most organizational leaders will never experience.

On one memorable day, Barcott got word that a local sheik had been assassinated. What is more, the assassins were two boys, ages 11 and 15. The triggerman was the 11-year-old.

Responsible for “human operations,” as the effort to win the hearts and minds of the local population was euphemistically labeled, Barcott knew this was a dangerous situation. After the killing, Barcott and his team spread out across the city. Barcott himself joined the Iraqi police at the crime scene and eventually found himself seated across from the boys in the interrogation room. Whatever was going to happen, it was time sensitive. Decisions would have to be made quickly before the situation escalated into an ugly and dangerous scene.

“I needed to go out with the Iraqi police unit so we could acquire information to keep our unit safe from attacks that were already in motion,” Barcott recalled. “I realized there were a number of possible bad outcomes and I had to make the best out of a situation that only had negative outcomes.”

From his work with the Iraqi police, Barcott was able to learn that an I.E.D. had been planted in another part of the city specifically for his troops. The two boys were sent to Abu Ghraib prison, and the bomb was neutralized before it could kill any troops or civilians.

For Barcott, who also founded and ran an aid organization in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, while serving in the Marines, dealing with intense levels of stress is not about having control. In fact, for Marines and other military leaders, the moments of highest stress in combat are moments of the greatest uncertainty. There are a number of different outcomes, and “the fog of war is high.”

“I challenge the thesis about less stress due to more control,” he said. “The reason we experience stress differently in combat has less to do with the amount of control and more to do with being in the service of others. When you are thinking about how your team is going to be affected, it puts you in a different frame of mind than if you are an individual actor. The best leaders I worked with were always putting the welfare of the men and women who served under them ahead of themselves.”

The Marines, in fact, have a decision-making cycle called an “Ooda Loop.” Ooda is an acronym that stands for “observe, orient, decide and act.” The theory is that the faster a leader can execute these four actions, the more effective the team will be, especially in a time of war when the stress is high.

“When you go into a high-stress environment, the mind switches from focusing on the consequences of all that can go wrong to ‘what are the best decisions I can make with the least amount of damage with the information I have?’ ” Barcott explains.

If great leaders experience less stress, Barcott believes, it is because of an accumulated body of experience coupled with a framework for translating that experience into knowledge. “In the military, you wear a set of ribbons, which are there for a number of reasons — personal achievements, unit achievements, experiences you’ve had,” he said. “The accumulation of experience is often valued as wisdom; and in some cases, that is bona fide. But experience doesn’t translate into knowledge unless you have the framework for reflection and making sense of that experience.”

In other words, whether or not a leader is feeling great stress is not the primary concern. “A leader casts a long shadow over an organization,” Barcott continued. “It’s always important to contain the anxiety you feel, which doesn’t mean you aren’t true to your emotions. But when the stakes are very high, the organization will feel that leader’s stress. A leader needs to be in a position of demonstrated grace under pressure. It has an amazing effect.”

Authors

  • Glenn Rifkin

    Managing Editor, Korn Ferry Briefings