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Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress. (2012) The myth of executive stress

The common perception is that leaders face higher stress levels than non-leaders. These studies found there is indeed a clear relationship – but that it’s an inverse one.


Gary D. Sherman(a), Jooa J. Lee(a), Amy J. C. Cuddy(b), Jonathan Renshon(c), Christopher Oveis(d), James J. Gross(e), and Jennifer S. Lerner(a)

(a)Harvard Kennedy School and (c)Department of Government, Harvard University

(b)Harvard Business School, Harvard University, Boston
(d)Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego
(e)Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford.


It’s tough being the boss, writes Keith Payne in a Scientific American article. He reports the plight of one CEO “who had to drag himself out of bed each morning and muster his game face. It would be a long day of telling other people what to do. It got so bad, we are told, that he had no choice but to take a year off work to sail across the Atlantic Ocean with his family.”

“This type of silliness usually cites research from the 1950’s on ‘executive stress syndrome.’ The research was not on executives, but rhesus monkeys. In fact there are hundreds of studies on the relationship between stress, health, and power. And they virtually all show the opposite of the executive monkeys.”

These studies by psychologist Gary Sherman and colleagues provide the most direct test yet of the difference in stress between leaders and followers.

Sherman et al studied full time workers in either business or the military who were taking executive education classes at Harvard’s business school.

Their first study found that, compared with nonleaders, leaders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower reports of anxiety.

In study 2, leaders holding more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than leaders holding less powerful positions, a relationship explained significantly by their greater sense of control.

“Altogether, these findings reveal a clear relationship between leadership and stress, with leadership level being inversely related to stress.”


Access the research paper here: Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress

Access Payne’s article here: The myth of executive stress

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