• Behaviour

Future Leaders and the Trouble with Testosterone

How do we modify behaviours that are so biological in their basis?

Tuesday 29 October 2013

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The ‘trouble’ starts in the womb, when the embryo with the XY gene gets its first flood of testosterone, and starts the journey to becoming male. All embryos start out female, and only after a few weeks do they differentiate in terms of gender. Female embryos carry the XX chromosomes and males the XY. There are of course fascinating exceptions, such as the XXY ‘super females’ whose excess testosterone leaves them stronger, faster, hairier, with a good sense of direction, and the ability to read maps upside down, but that’s another story.

Sticking to future Leaders, we are looking at a group of mostly men, a few women, more than half above the age of 35 (testosterone levels start to decline in men around 35). Women also have testosterone, but much less than men. Testosterone, an anabolic steroid hormone like insulin and growth hormone, is secreted from the testes in men and the ovaries in women. Catabolic steroid hormones include cortisol and adrenaline (mediators of stress). When the ratio of anabolic-to-catabolic is high, you have high performance; when the ratio is low, you have stress and poor resilience.

Even though psychology has informed business for decades, there often remains an assumption that there is a cut off between mind and body, with little interaction between them. Our understanding that neuroscience is drifting below the neck and that physiology is drifting above the neck is growing through visibility (allowed by scanning) of the exquisite interaction between nerves and hormones (the neuro-endocrine system) in the brain and body as a whole. The tiniest change in a cell, chemical or electrical signal in the body, gives rise to some compensatory, complementary or inhibitory response in the brain, and vice versa.

What are the characteristics that we admire in the Leaders of today? Might they include focus, determination and drive? These are strongly correlated to testosterone levels. Would we say that the Leaders of yesteryear were too ruthless, too much in ‘command and control’ mode, too aggressively pace-setting? These are correlated to higher testosterone levels. Are we seeing future Leaders evolving to be more collaborative, trust-building, and coaching in style? These may not be correlated, or indeed may be inversely correlated to testosterone levels. More likely they are correlated to oxytocin and serotonin levels; remembering that in such complex behaviours, these chemicals, and thousands more, are cascading around our brains, having inhibitory and excitatory effects on each other.

With too few women in senior positions in large corporates, are we going to witness a shift to Leaders, Boards and organizations becoming more well-rounded, more balanced, more able to mitigate our physiology, and less skeptical of the interplay between physicality and behavior? In the next decade, is neuroscience research going to reveal the similarities in the physiological signature of professional athletes, elite soldiers, and experts in various fields, especially in terms of risk-taking, innovation, and Leadership?

With millions of dollars going into research, these questions should be answered over time. What we do know is that the brain and the body ‘rev up’ together for a fight, flight, fright situation. The rugby player, anticipating kick-off, who can “hear every voice…see every blade of grass,” is experiencing the effect of testosterone on the brain, augmented by noradrenaline. Neuro-endocrinologists suggest that our adrenal glands may actually register risk before out conscious minds do. Experiments show that men and women have a similar appetite for risk, but that men are more willing to act on partial information, which has obvious advantages and disadvantages in business. The ‘winner effect’ experiments (reproduced in humans by looking at male tennis players) are based on the knowledge that an animal that has recently won a fight (either male and female) is statistically more likely to win the next fight, due to increases in haemoglobin, and increased confidence and appetite for risk. Victory keeps raising testosterone levels, in an inverted U-shaped dose-response curve. This means there is a tipping point beyond which the animal starts to pick too many fights and its risky behavior impairs its ability to survive.

How do we modify behaviours that are so biological in their basis? There is increasing evidence, from brain scanning, that mindfulness-based training can regulate the neuro-endocrinological system, to induce calmer states. Conversely, physical training regimes can improve emotional stability, and immunity to both despondency and euphoria, and through sufficient production of dopamine and noradrenaline to keep us motivated and alert. Stress followed by recovery develops resilience.

What can Leaders do with all this information?  Perhaps they can:

  • Recognize the biology and regulate it – at individual, company and policy level
  • Focus attention on the pros and cons of testosterone-fuelled behavior
  • Choose a physical training regimen to improve mental resilience
  • Train and incentivize people in a way that discourages short-termism, and encourages meaningful benefits to themselves, their team, the company, the customer, and society 


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