Study: Testosterone, cortisol levels affect leadership ability

Eunice Ali

A research team including UT psychology professor Robert Josephs found male executives with high levels of testosterone and low levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to have higher-ranking jobs.

The study, published last month, was conducted at Harvard University by five researchers led by Gary Sherman, former postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His then-supervisor Jennifer Lerner, Harvard public policy and management professor, was the one who brought the team together. Josephs joined the team after Lerner invited him to Harvard to give a talk.

“This is [a] very collaborative [effort],” Sherman said. “The original idea and hypothesis came from the work [Josephs] published several years ago.”

Participants were 78 male executives aged 33–65 from the government, military, law enforcement and defense sectors who enrolled in the Harvard executive education program. Each participant had his saliva sample taken and was asked how many people report to him at work.

No women participated in the study because testosterone levels do not fluctuate much in women.

Results showed individuals with high testosterone and low cortisol levels are more likely to hold high-status positions, while those with high testosterone and high cortisol levels are not.

“These are hormonal fingerprints of successful leaderships,” Josephs said. “It’s not about how good of a leader you think you are; rather, it’s an objective measure of leadership success — how many subordinates you have under you.”

Josephs said the results confirmed his 2010 publication — that analyzed male testosterone and cortisol levels in relation to dominance — done in collaboration with Pranjal Mehta. Mehta, a UT graduate student in psychology at the time, was working with Josephs for his dissertation.

For the study, students in an introductory psychology course were put into same-sex pairs and had their saliva samples taken. Each was assigned a position of a leader or a follower and given a puzzle to solve. Results showed individuals with high testosterone and low cortisol levels come across as confident, while those with high testosterone and high cortisol levels anxious.

“It’s nice when another lab — another independent group — finds overlapping results,” Mehta said. “That means our finding has meaning and probably truth in it.”

Mehta, now an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Oregon, said he wants to conduct a longitudinal study by creating a hormone profile to predict which individuals across many organizations will get promoted
over time.