By DAVID ROCK
A new study just out from James Gross of Stanford University and six other researchers has shown that the higher people go as a leader, the less stress they experience. It turns out that being the CEO is less stressful than being a senior manager. It’s an intriguing idea, as it flies in the face of the current thinking about leadership, which has supported the notion that top leaders are under enormous stress.
But new research in neuroscience tends to support Gross’s findings. One of the big ideas that has emerged out of the connection between neuroscience and leadership is that leaders are largely motivated by what we’ve come to call The SCARF Model. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness — the five social experiences that create strong threats or rewards in the brain.
From the SCARF perspective, while top leaders might have plenty of stress, they also have lots of rewards (literally activations of the reward center in the brain) that offset this stress. They obviously have very high status. Cameron Anderson from Berkely showed in a study that respect from others (which comes from having high status) mattered more than money for happiness in life. He defined the term “local status,” (which is how you rank compared to people are around you), and found that it was more important in terms of personal happiness than socio economic status. Anderson believed that high local status is like the “gift that keeps on giving,” one of the few rewards that will not diminish much in value over time. So while leaders might be stressed, this is offset by high status, which literally activates the reward centers in the brain.