With great power comes great responsibility. At least, that’s what Voltaire wrote after observing the abuse of great power. But for those at the top who do not use their power to prey upon the weak in a gleeful fashion, life can be very stressful.
Or so we thought.
It turns out all those CEOs out on the golf course are not unwinding from a stressful existence (shock!), in fact, they are not particularly stressed out at all.
Lerner tested saliva samples, measuring the level of a stress hormone called cortisol.
“The higher the cortisol level, the higher the stress response,” Lerner said on NPR’s All Things Considered. “What we found is that people who were higher on leadership status had lower cortisol levels.”
A second study got at the “why” of the first.
When studying leaders as a separate group, Lerner said, “What we hypothesized and found is that when people have perceptions of control, then that reduces cortisol.”
Lerner went on to say, “It’s not so much what you’re doing as your perceptions of what you’re doing. Many middle level managers can make decisions, but they don’t have the control to implement them or, you know, to carry them out.”
It is difficult to say whether lower levels of stress simply indicate leadership ability. What if CEOs rise to the top partly because they cope well with stressful situations?
Lerner says future testing will deal with “these different causal pathways.” Researchers will need to find out whether being at the top is inherently less stressful, or whether individuals rise to the top because of their relaxed nature.
If all we need is to perceive that we are in control, as the initial study suggests, perhaps targeting our control over our perception will rid us of stress once and for all?
Oh yeah, that’s called enlightenment.
Listen to the full NPR interview here.