Want to be less stressed and live longer? Think like a leader.

I was intrigued by an op-ed article, “It’s Easy Being King,” that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. The authors, both Harvard researchers, described findings of recent studies suggesting that leaders (which they defined as people in powerful and high ranking positions) were less stressed than non-leaders (which they defined as people with lower rank).

The researchers measured stress by testing individuals’ levels of cortisol. So we’re not talking about good, energizing stress – we’re talking about deadly stress. Chronically elevated cortisol is linked to depression, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and other causes of illness and premature death.

Are you surprised by these findings? Neither am I. The authors concluded that leaders have, or, more accurately, believe they have, a higher sense of control and predictability. It’s this perceived control that leads to lower cortisol levels.

I don’t think the difference in perceived control is strictly due to the financial security of a CEO’s life compared to the average middle manager’s, though that may contribute. The “leaders” in this study expressed less anxiety than the “non-leaders” in response to statements like, “I can get people to listen to what I say.” So the issue is whether the person feels they can influence their environment.

I guess I’m not willing to accept the assumption that a “non-leader,” a manager or individual contributor sitting in the middle of her organization, must feel a degree of powerlessness proportional to her position. What if you didn’t assume that you have to have high power and rank to lead? What if you thought about leadership as a set of attitudes and behaviors, not a position, having to do with engaging stakeholders to clarify purpose and values, and mobilizing collective energy towards these?

Filtering the stress research findings through that lens, perhaps it’s having the mindset of a leader that accounts for reduced stress. And, perhaps it’s the people who feel they can control their environment, and experience less stress, who are more likely to rise in position. So how can you develop the mindset of a leader, regardless of where you sit in the organization?

    • Shift your perspective on authority and hierarchy. These days, most influencing doesn’t happen through authority anyway – it happens laterally with the web of peers inside and outside your function whom you need in order to accomplish your goals.
    • Get clear on your purpose and your interests in your role. What effect or impact do you want to have? What are your goals? What initiative or change do you want to advance? Know what you care about.
    • Think broader than just the goals of your role. What do you care about influencing on your organization’s broader stage?
    • Learn influencing skills and use them in the service of what you care about.
    • Listen to others’ interests and build alliances based on shared goals and values – regardless of position.
    • Don’t be afraid of constructive conflict and tough conversations in service of your purpose.
    • Notice how others respond to you when you think and act like a leader. You may get some push-back, but many managers prefer to lead leaders, rather than to lead “followers.”
    • Face your fears. If those actions make you nervous, ask yourself this question. What’s the worst that can happen? You may realize that the worst-case scenario is highly unlikely, and that other, more positive, outcomes are possible.

Finally, remember that we started by talking about stress. Isn’t it interesting that the path to better health parallels the paths of increased effectiveness and human development?

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