Why Being a Leader Is Less Stressful than Following

Contrary to the common wisdom that people in positions of power are more stressed than the rest of us, a new study finds that those in higher-ranking roles wield more control and, thus, suffer less stress and anxiety

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While the image of the stressed-out executive or the politician under pressure has been firmly planted in the American mind, research increasingly suggests that it’s actually people lower down on the social scale — not those in leadership positions at the top — who suffer the worst health effects of stress.

Now a new study of military officials and government staffers at a Harvard executive-training program confirms these findings, showing that as people climb the organizational rungs, their stress hormone levels and anxiety typically go down. “Being a leader, especially a high-ranking leader, is associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” says study co-author Gary Sherman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, noting that chronically high cortisol is a physiological indicator of stress.

Indeed, while everyone needs some amount of cortisol to cope with short-term stress, having consistently high levels of the hormone has been linked to depression, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and other major causes of illness and death. The new study found that cortisol levels were 27% higher, on average, in non-leaders compared with leaders.

(MORE: Study: 1 in 25 Business Leaders May Be Psychopaths)

For the paper, two experiments were conducted. The first involved simply measuring cortisol and anxiety levels in 216 people, including government officials and military officers, and then comparing those levels to those in people recruited from the Boston area who did not hold managerial positions.

The second study included 88 leaders and analyzed whether their sense of social control over their circumstances was linked to how stressed they felt. Previous research has found that even people in low-ranking positions don’t have overly high levels of stress as long as they have a perceived sense of control; but for those who don’t have a sense of power, even being at the top won’t protect them from hazardous stress.

“When we compared leaders of different ranks and levels, we found that higher-ranking leaders reported a greater sense of control in their lives. This helped explain why they had lower levels of stress,” says Sherman. Simply thinking that you have control, whether or not you actually do, changes the way the brain responds to stress and makes it less toxic.

It’s an “interesting and nicely constructed series of studies,” says Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology at Emory University, who was not associated with the research.

“Our findings suggest that despite the complexities inherent in human hierarchies, differences in rank do have implications for understanding health. Because cortisol impacts immune function, differences in one’s rank within an organization may have health implications,” says Sherman, adding that this means that increased income inequality could increase health disparities between the rich and the rest.

(MORE: Psychopathic Traits: What Successful Presidents Have in Common)

But, interestingly, while higher rank was generally linked with both lower anxiety and lower stress hormone levels, the study found that anxiety and stress were not related to each other. A person might be extremely anxious and have low stress hormone levels — or be completely nonplussed while having elevated cortisol. In a commentary published along with the study, Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher on stress and rank, noted that while both stress and anxiety respond to stress, they’re linked with different branches of the stress-response system.

Having low cortisol and low anxiety levels have also been linked with psychopathic traits, which Lilienfeld in turn found to be associated with leadership in a recent study of American presidents. “As the authors themselves acknowledge, their results pose something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum,” he says. “Does leadership produce lower levels of cortisol, or do some of the same personality traits that might be tied to low cortisol, like [the psychopathic trait of] boldness, contribute to leadership?”

Lilienfeld suggests that it’s possible that a certain subset of psychopathic traits, such as physical and social boldness, could predispose a person to have both low cortisol and to be an effective leader — so, low cortisol could be a marker of sorts for both traits. “This hypothesis would be worth pursuing in further research,” he says.

Sherman agrees that it’s “highly plausible” that people with low cortisol levels might tend to become leaders because of their ability to stay cool.

(MORE: Baboon Study Shows Why High Social Status Boosts Health)

Cortisol research is notoriously hard to interpret, however, as Lilienfeld cautions. Some research has found that low cortisol is associated with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, which conflicts with the idea that it is a marker of fearlessness or a psychopathic lack of concern.

In any case, the early scientific evidence that first suggested that higher rank necessarily means higher stress hasn’t held up to scrutiny. Generally, life — and health — are better at the top. As Sapolsky notes in his commentary, “As a final bonus, the work offers an immediate practical benefit for this campaign season: if a politician asserts that his adrenal glands have hypertrophied [i.e., that he’s overstressed by the job] but that this is a sacrifice he is willing to bear for the rest of us, consider this a good indicator that anything else he claims should be viewed skeptically.”

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.


If this study was actually correct, then The President of the United States would have NO Stress at all. As for the CEO's, they have stress, just different types. A CEO needs to worry about every little decision they make. One bad decision could lead the company down the wrong path, lose money, have to fire workers, lose investors/stockholders, upset the board members and possibly be fired themselves etc...


so a happy leader will need to find li leaders


because if a leader has no one to trust his work, he cant delegate the stressfull stuff, and then he has to do it all

or ppl will mess it up


i think a leader is only less stressed when he is in the position of delegating stuff.. but if he is not , i dont think so

Sunil Bajpai
Sunil Bajpai

Stress can be controlled if we could balance our priorities in life irrespective of who we are- a leader or a follower. The Tripod Framework is a model which helps in prioritizing our life-goals.


Anne Smithson
Anne Smithson

I completely agree with the research (and many of the

comments here). I think that CEOs and leaders are less stressed because they

control their work day more and may be more in control of things such as

outsourcing stressful or unwanted activities to others. I am still climbing the

career ladder and in the meantime I use Belleruth Naparstek’s tips for de-stressing (http://www.spiritualityandprac...

as well as guided meditation and yoga to control stress.



Some of the research showing this is decades old, at the least.

I ref kids soccer games.  The pressure comes from me, my pride at trying to do a good job.  The kids make me run (and teenage boys more than 4 decades younger make me run a lot).  The running burns off the chemicals released by stress, which is exactly as Mother Nature intended.  And a loud blast of my whistle feels good, too.

Hassles from the sidelines?  I warn 'em first, and then go to the send-off.  It works every time.  

Jeanne Kalvar
Jeanne Kalvar

I feel our stress level comes from the amount of risk we have to carry over our own personal situations.  As society has changed, it's shifted risk downward.  A lower level employee has to worry about doing their job well, as does everyone, but also about pleasing a huge network of people higher than them in a corporate hierarchy.   They must worry about peers ratting on them.  Many aspects of their jobs are out of their control, but they do not have the influence with their organization to explain any failures due to that.  They often do not even have a good definition of exactly what they should be doing...and no way of getting one.  The higher in an organization you get, the fewer people you have to please who could get you fired, and the more ability you have to control the expectations placed on you or explain issues as or before they arrive.


This report states that the position (leader or non leader) causes the stress level.  I think you also have to consider what types of personalities want to become leaders.  Are these people who have a very high dominant characteristics?  Are they more happy if they have more control?  In order to climb up the ladder you also have to be a hard worker.  Do hard workers deal with stress easily than just a normal type of person?


A simple formula: better to be a jerker than a jerkee...


Quite interesting article, due the human nature of both the leader and the follower the way of handling stress is very different between them, as well as leaders have better satisfactors to cope with than followers.

Most of the time followers have shortsighted vision of the future and can get the jitters very quick. It is not their fault but the circumstances and the point in time where they are within the ladder of success.

Adding up the biological process mentioned in the article, both leader and follower can be stressed enough somewhere in time and each of them will handle it with their own resources.

“Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Roberto A.



This makes a lot of sense to me. As a CEO, I’ve felt my own

stress levels decrease as I’ve climbed the ranks and gotten more control over

my day. I think it’s important for leaders to remember the way they used to

feel when they didn’t have such control – and actively work to improve things

for their staff. (A few practical ideas are here: http://ceoconfidential.wordpre...