Testosterone, personality and leadership
A few years ago I was on holiday, in Malta, with a group of friends. We were enjoying the last of the summer sun and over a few glasses of wine we reflected on the stage of life we were at; middle age. At the time I was 40 and felt full of energy. I still felt that I had a whole career and life ahead of me. I felt confident and strong. I mused that because life expectancy is 80, based on my age I was at the equivalent of July 4th, if one year was a human life.
Now at 48 by the same reckoning I’m in August. Which is a fine month in the northern hemisphere. The thing about August is that the leaves start to fade a little. And the squirrels start to get anxious. In Canada the bears urgently seek our berries. In the UK, August is often the hottest month. It’s a long lazy month of lovely summer holidays when you can take stock of the year.
Now September is all together different. The odd cold snap reminds us that more difficult times are ahead. Definitely a time to take stock, arrange pensions, and if you’re a squirrel think about your nuts.
As we age we may reflect more on opportunities taken and opportunities missed. The people we miss, the things we didn’t say. The people we didn’t tell we love. The fears that we didn’t feel we could express. The things we kept deep inside. We are also drawn to the earth and the thought of the end of our lives. As our grandparents and parents become old and infirm and pass away we may be drawn to thoughts of our impact and legacy.
Fear can enter our heart. Uncertainty can cloud our decisions.
We are pulled from the present to the past and to the future. As we age these twin energies can mire our view of the present. We may forget to be grateful of what we have and mourn lost youth. We may also mourn the self that we thought we were and fear the self that we may become. Some of the change in our self perception is down to a change in our hormones. There are obviously so many wonderful and uplifting things about getting older and this article also discusses how a reduction in testosterone levels can help decision making. This article is a call for greater recognition of this topic and imrpoved balance in the boardrooms of Australia and the UK
Testosterone and decision making
In males, testosterone levels can decline by between 1 and 2% every year after the age of 40. This is not always true and the rates vary greatly. But testosterone levels do decline and this decline has an impact on our decision making as well as our physical strength. In some respects this can be a very great thing. Elevated levels of testosterone may make us develop egocentric behaviours and be less cooperative.
Perhaps that’s why most of our leaders are in their 50s , 60s and 70s.
The research is fairly limited in this area. Let’s take the examples of a narcissistic, ageing business men and politicians with a reportedly high sex drive, like Berlusconi, Trump and others.
When they are confronted by the reality of physical decline they may bristle and pretend to themselves and the world that they are virile young men. When confronted by a mirror they respond in an ugly way. Their decision making may be based on a narcissistic, historical view of self. And anyone who shines a light on the truth of their present self will be their greatest enemy.
These are dangerous men who will do anything to protect their own view of self. We know from the research that testosterone can be increased by risk taking. There is no research that I could find on the effect of testosterone decline in the decision making of leaders. But one could speculate that the narcissistic male leader might want to continue to feel that testosterone high by taking greater and greater risks. In the UK one can think of Philip Green as an obvious example.
The interplay between testosterone and personality in the board room
To what extent do UK boardrooms have these kinds of characters making decisions?
In the paper “Narcissism, Director Selection, and Risk-Taking Spending” published in Strategic Management Journal, researchers found that, when narcissistic chief executives interact with the board, they often meet a mirror rather than a place where they can be challenged. According to Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, in their book Snakes in Suits, somewhere between 3-25% of executives could be assessed as psychopaths, a much higher figure than the general population figure of 1%. The narcissist lacks empathy, the ability to put himself in other people's shoes. He does not recognise boundaries; personal, corporate, or legal. Everything and everyone are to him mere instruments providing support to his view of self.
The ageing process and decision-making in the board room
According to a 2016 BDO report on board room diversity the average age of a board member ranges from about 54 (in media companies) to 60 (investment companies). Other areas such as financial services and construction fall somewhere in between. 25% of FTSE 100 boards are women, but the average for all listed companies falls to about 12% . Clearly the boardroom is filled with late middle-aged men (usually white but BDO fails to report on this). BDO report
We need to start considering whether this current mix of age and gender is optimal to enhance value creation and whether such a mix enables creativity, and allows organisations to pick up the latest trends.
We also need to start considering the ageing process in decision-making and finding ways to exclude the narcissist and psychopath! There is a wealth of research about how hormones such as testosterone, cortisol and oxytocin impact our ability to make decisions, the quality of those decisions and our ability to handle stress. These chemical also impact our ability to develop and promote leadership qualities such as; empathy, listening skills, courage, optimism, flexibility and strength.
Some of the research
Studies have demonstrated that hormones, in particular testosterone and cortisol, can influence our personalities, social behaviours, and leadership, sometimes in unexpected ways.
People with elevated testosterone more likely to make hard decisions for the greater good - In a thought experiment study people were asked to consider a moral dilemma question. Before doing the experiment the researchers measured the participants testosterone levels.
The switch dilemma: A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who are tied to the track. You can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that alternative track. Participants are asked whether they would flip the switch?
The second dilemma is “The footbridge dilemma”: As in the previous thought experiment, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. A scenario is given where there is a very heavy man next to you and your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, thereby killing him to save the other five. Participants are asked whether they would push the man.
In response to the first dilemma 105 of the 117 participants responded ‘yes’, they would flip the switch sacrificing one life to save five (for the greater good). The expected reverse effect was found for the footbridge dilemma, with 78 of the participants abandoning the utilitarian approach and saying ‘no’, they would not push the man to save five others.
Those participants who were always willing to endorse trading one life to save five (whom we can refer to as ‘intransigent utilitarians’) had significantly higher testosterone than the others, who answered ‘yes’ to the first dilemma but ‘no’ to the second. Those who would not intervene in either case had the lowest levels of testosterone.
The researchers suggest that there are situations in business that require the steely nerve of a high testosterone leader who can make those hard decisions for the greater good. (1). However we need to be wary of the high testosterone, narcissistic leader who replaces the “greater good” with preservation of the “greater self” or the preservation of the memory of an earlier version of their greater self.
Testosterone makes us overvalue our own opinions at the expense of cooperation - research from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) has found less sharing of information and greater egocentric performance for people with elevated testosterone levels.
The findings may have implications for how group decisions are affected by dominant individuals. (2)
Dr Nick Wright at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL carried out a series of tests using volunteers who had previously never met. The test took place over two days, spaced a week apart. On one of the days, both volunteers in each pair were given a testosterone supplement; on the other day, they were given a placebo.
During the experiment, both women had their own screen to monitor and sat in the same room. Both saw exactly the same images. First, in each trial they were shown two images, one of which contained a high-contrast target. Their job was to decide individually which image contained the target.
If their individual choices agreed, they received positive feedback and moved on to the next trial. However, if they disagreed, they were asked to collaborate with their partner and come to a mutually agreed decision. One of the pair then input the agreed joint decision. If they couldn’t agree they reverted back to their own decision.
The researchers found that, as expected, cooperation enabled the group to perform much better together than apart.
But, when given a testosterone supplement, the benefit of cooperation was markedly reduced. In fact, higher levels of testosterone were associated with individuals behaving egocentrically and deciding in favour of their own selection over their partner's. When they were given the placebo cooperation was once again enhanced and better outcomes achieved.
People with higher testosterone levels more likely to be associated with financial misreporting - Jia, Van Lent and Zeng (2015) found that male CEOs with higher testosterone levels than peers are more likely to be associated with financial misreporting (3)
Riskier portfolios picked by people with elevated testosterone levels – In a 2015 study of students playing a wealth fund management game Nofsinger, Patterson and Daigler found that participants with higher levels of testosterone and cortisol tended to choose higher risk asset allocations to earn a higher risk premium. They also found that these people tended to choose more diversified portfolios to reduce unsystematic risk. So while risk was increased, it was not reckless risk, but calculated risk. The authors also found that the higher the returns achieved, the higher the testosterone in the subjects. This seems to support the idea that outcomes can drive changes in hormones. Perhaps this feedback loop can lead to irrational exuberance. As bubbles build, testosterone increases in an upward spiral until bust. (6)
Cortisol and testosterone increase financial risk taking and may destabilise markets (7) Researchers measured levels of the two hormones in saliva samples of 142 volunteers, male and female, playing an asset trading game in groups of around 10. Those who had higher levels of cortisol were more likely to take risks, and high levels in the group were associated with instability in prices.
In a follow-up experiment, 75 young men were given either cortisol or testosterone before playing the game, once with the hormone and once on a placebo. Both hormones shifted investment towards riskier assets. Cortisol appeared to directly affect volunteers’ preference for riskier assets, while testosterone seemed to increase optimism about how prices would change in the future.
I hope this small exploration of the research into these two hormones gives you greater insight into their importance in decision making, board room composition and who we choose to be our leaders.
As people age their testosterone levels naturally decline. The degree to which narcissistic leaders try and cling on to their “old self” and how this impacts their decision making is an area for further study.
Boardrooms tend to be made up of more elderly people because they have built up a wealth of procedural knowledge and hopefully social intelligence. Their decline in testosterone level may be a very positive thing, helping the organisation from over committing in one area. It may also stifle swift decision-making and appropriate risk taking.
On the other hand we know that elevated cortisol levels tend to direct people to overly focus upon threats and deficits rather than strengths and opportunities. And therefore we need to ensure that negative filtering at board level and politics does not become engrained.
I hope this short paper helps make people rethink not just the gender composition of boards but also the age profile. And in all walks of life from politics to the boardroom let’s consider the personality types of our leaders. Let’s choose leaders who espouse the skills of listening, empathy and compassion; leaders who are able to combine these skills with steely strength and the ability to act on behalf of the greater good.
Let’s not choose leaders who try to preserve an historic view of themselves. People like Trump that look wistfully back to the past and say “lets make America great again”. What they are really saying is “I wish I was young and virile and strong like I was back in the 60s. “
Declining testosterone does not necessarily mean a decline in positive energy and essence. We all know people in their 60s, 70s and 80s who have let go of the things of youth but still retain a passion, vibrancy and energy. These people make great leaders. They retain a twinkle in their eyes and a curiosity about the world and other people.
(1) - Decision making and testosterone: When the ends justify the means
Volume 46, Issue 4, July 2010, Pages 668–671
(4) Nicholas D. Wright, Bahador Bahrami, Emily Johnson, Gina Di Malta, Geraint Rees, Christopher D. Frith, Raymond J. Dolan. Testosterone disrupts human collaboration by increasing egocentric choices. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2012; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.2523
(3) Jia, Van Lent and Zeng (2015)
(4) Decision Making, Financial Risk Aversion and Behavioral Biases: The Role of Testosterone and Stress Nofsinger, Patterson and Daigler – 2015
(5) Cortisol and testosterone increase financial risk taking and may destabilize markets - Carlos Cueva, R. Edward Roberts, Tom Spencer, Nisha Rani, Michelle Tempest, Philippe N. Tobler, Joe Herbert & Aldo Rustichini
Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 11206 (2015)
Breathe Australia and Breathe London
Andy Roberts works in Australia in emotioanl intelligence, mindfulness at work, leadership development at www.breathe-australia.com
And in the UK at www.breathe-london.com