25 Sep 2012

Laboratory Study of Leaders Shows Surprising Result: As Responsibility Increases, Stress Decreases


CAMBRIDGE and BOSTON, Mass.–A unique laboratory study shows that leaders with more leadership responsibility experience lower stress levels (as measured by stress hormone — i.e., cortisol — levels) than peers who have less responsibility.

The results of the study appear in this week's early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research team, led by Jennifer Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), included Harvard Business School (HBS) Associate Professor Amy Cuddy, HKS Postdoctoral Fellow Gary Sherman, Professors James Gross of Stanford University and Christopher Oveis of the University of California at San Diego, and Harvard doctoral students Julia Jooa Lee and Jonathan Renshon.

The researchers engaged senior leaders from the public and private sectors who volunteered to serve as participants in a wide-ranging and pioneering investigation on leadership and stress. The leaders included military officers, government officials, nonprofit administrators, and business executives from the United States and around the world.

"There is a strong theme in the literature on leadership that the higher people rise in leadership positions, the more stress they have to manage," Professor Lerner observes. "But when we studied people who actually hold positions of leadership, we found that they tended to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to non-leaders."

The authors found that a parallel outcome measure--self-reported anxiety--showed the same pattern, thus indicating the robustness of the phenomenon.

A second study conducted by the research team examined differences in rank and authority within a group of leaders and confirmed that even among leaders, those with higher levels of leadership responsibility (as measured by number of subordinates) experienced lower stress and cortisol levels than those with less responsibility. According to Dr. Sherman , "Not only are leaders less stressed than non-leaders, but more powerful, higher-ranking leaders are less stressed than less powerful, lower-ranking leaders."

"Our results complement a growing body of research on the link between power and hormones, particularly cortisol and testosterone," explains Professor Cuddy. "These hormones fluctuate depending on how powerful we're feeling in the moment."

The authors also discovered that feelings of control provided a key to explaining the results of their research. "Our evidence indicates that higher-ranking leaders have a greater sense of control in their lives," Professor Lerner says. "This helps explain why they had lower cortisol and less anxiety than lower-ranking leaders. Of course, it's quite possible that the reverse causal direction occurs as well—people may rise to positions of leadership because they have a skill for insulating themselves from the stresses that go with increased responsibility."


Doug Gavel
Harvard Kennedy School

Jim Aisner
Harvard Business School

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.