Stress is one of the most prevalent burdens of modern-day life and has become particularly common in large and complex organisations. For many in senior positions executive stress is increasingly impacting large numbers of people, particularly those just below C-Suite level.
Even receiving promotion into a desired role can contribute to unwarranted pressure while adjusting to the challenges and demands of a new job. Indeed, the transition from general management to C-suite executive creates significant emotional strain for those trying to establish a fresh identity.
Handling stress requires resilience and an ability to look objectively at different pathways to navigate demanding scenarios. An individual’s response to difficult situations determines their stress levels, rather than the actual situation itself. Those who retain their focus are most likely to remain optimistic, believe in their own abilities and show higher levels of resilience.
Our study into The Five Qs on Leadership has shown that the requirements to operate effectively at senior levels are:
- A high intellectual capacity (IQ) to work through complexity and provide compelling arguments concerning the way forward and correct choice of strategy;
- Political intelligence (PQ), which determines how to influence people and engage with them;
- Emotional intelligence (EQ), which draws upon and utilises one’s emotional abilities;
- Resilience quotient (RQ), which assists in withstanding pressure and turning it into an everyday experience;
- Moral intelligence (MQ), a leader’s ability to understand their own value system and draw on this to determine moral boundaries in others.
Our research has further uncovered that the most vulnerable executives are those in general management positions, such as country and regional heads, or senior functional directors.
C-suite executives rarely exhibit equivalent levels of stress because their focus is on clearly identifying a strategy. General management, however, face the pressure of having to execute plans from the top team, often finding themselves caught between being held accountable for something they didn’t create, while clashing with middle managers who have to make outcomes work.
This stretch creates severe emotional demands which are difficult to overcome. Prolonged exposure to such tension leads to emotional incapacity. Executives often work anywhere between 12 to 16 hours a day and this is inevitably a strain that adversely affects their work, home and social lives.
However, in the majority of cases it is their decision to live this way. They can say no to requests and decide when and how to deal with challenges. C-suite executives have greater control over how to run their lives in contrast to those working at lower levels. They also benefit from having necessary resources at their disposal to address their situation.
Are hormones the key?
Despite all of this, having a high IQ and developed PQ does not guarantee easy ascendance to the top of any organisation. In fact it is hormones that have a surprising influence over resilience, and strongly direct how leaders manage challenges.
Our work has revealed that the most critical hormones affecting high-performing executives’ decision-making are testosterone and cortisol. In popular culture, testosterone is often linked with a macho, male physique and virility. As a result, “alpha males” in leadership positions may exhibit the following traits:
- A strong, jutting-out jaw
- Prominent cheekbones
- Deep voice
- Body hair—interestingly, while being hairy indicates high testosterone, particularly high levels cause baldness
While these characteristics are a crude measure of higher-than-average levels of testosterone, research shows that high “T” can dramatically impact a younger leader’s “cost to benefit” calculations.
Although both men and women produce testosterone, levels are much lower in women. Testosterone is often associated with male development and function and has impacts upon levels of aggression, dominance, confidence, competitive nature, concentration, mood, sleep and energy, as well as levels of body fat, muscle and sex-drive.
Men between the ages of 50 to 65 tend to be more risk-averse and consultative in their decisions, while younger males are likely to be characterised by their risk-taking and individual competitiveness.
This balance could shift dramatically as more men take up hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and behave contrary to current expectations relating to gender and age. For business analysts and specialist sector and market advisers, approaches to leadership and customer interaction need to be rewritten where widespread use of HRT might become a factor.
Research has shown that managers who hold greater leadership responsibility have naturally higher levels of testosterone. A number of studies indicate that high levels of testosterone are associated with risk-taking. Young CEOs with higher-than-average levels of testosterone often reject low offers in merger and acquisition situations, even when this appears to be against their interests.
Testosterone is also linked to psychological processes, such as reduced fear, utilitarian decision-making, aggressive behaviour and a drive for elevated status and social dominance. Similarly, other hormones, such as cortisol, are associated with stress and social avoidance which can amplify or moderate testosterone impact.
The right balance
Various studies have shown that the right balance of testosterone and cortisol regulate levels of need for dominance in both men and women. While testosterone increases dominance in low-cortisol individuals, high cortisol blocks or reverses the testosterone effect. A Harvard study showed that dominant male participants with extensive responsibilities had high levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol when compared with other managers. Managers with both high levels of testosterone and cortisol tended to have fewer subordinates and less leadership responsibility.
The study concluded that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol inhibits the leadership qualities associated with high levels of testosterone. As levels of cortisol increase, leadership impact decreases. Executives with more responsibility had higher testosterone, but were also able to manage their stress levels. Other studies support these findings, namely that cortisol acts as a social inhibitor regardless of gender.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to the experience of stress or low blood sugar. It is crucial to our survival as it helps us respond to stressors and threats through “fight or flight” strategies. Once in a stressful situation, cortisol is released, resulting in higher blood sugar levels, a suppressed immune system, changes in memory formation and disrupted sleep. Too much cortisol can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, heart disease and problems related to all the major body systems.
Declining testosterone levels
The passage of time has a significant impact on responses to stress and hormone generation. Once a man turns 30, his body produces less testosterone each year. The numbers differ from person to person based on lifestyle and genetics, but after 30-years-old, men lose around 1%–2% of testosterone each year. This is compounded by the fact that men’s testosterone levels across all age groups have been declining over the past couple of decades.
For example, a man born in 1970 had about 20% less testosterone at age 35 than of his father’s generation at the same age. In the west, young men and women in their 20s are experiencing hormonal declines previously only seen in much older people.
Do those on HRT feel stronger, more active and happier? Medical research indicates that the answer is positively yes, at least for a short period of time. But perhaps they also place themselves at potential risk of side effects tied to the body’s premature burnout.
Not surprisingly, the demand for hormone replacement treatments by CEOs and executives has increased markedly. The reasons are twofold: these individuals are highly driven and want to preserve their drive and social status; they also can afford expensive treatments.
A growing number of elite health, anti-ageing endocrinology specialist providers have sprung up across the globe to offer tailored hormone replacement therapies (HRT) for both men and women.
One example—the anti-ageing clinic “Cenegenics”, based in Las Vegas, has 22 subsidiary clinics across the United States and has opened a centre in the Trump Building, about 100 metres from the New York Stock Exchange, as well as in Harley Street, London.
There is also light at the end of the tunnel in the form of yet another hormone—oxytocin, which evokes feelings of contentment and encourages supportive behaviour within social groups.
A lack of this particular hormone makes individuals extremely tired and weak, suffer low sex-drive, and find themselves unable to cope with stressful situations. If leaders are genuinely becoming a hostage to the ageing processes, an appropriately prescribed and controlled dose of oxytocin could prove a small price to pay.
Ultimately, the right balance between testosterone and oestrogen is clearly ideal for leaders who are handling demanding and multifaceted problems.
Nada and Andrew Kakabadse are professors at Henley Business School