It’s Good To Be The King: Why Leadership Reduces Stress

[From The Citizen, the HKS newspaper]

Once you’ve been here for a while, you’ll eventually see them: the black SUVs parked in the Kennedy School Quad, with their flashing red and blue lights, and the taciturn men in dark suits with earpieces and Oakleys. And we’ve all noticed the Very Important People who occasion this swirl of pomp and circumstance, as they alight from their vehicles, or as they’re whisked about by attentive aides. Visiting dignitaries are a fact of life at this institution, but it takes a particularly questing academic mind to wonder what that swirl means in a scientific sense.

Jennifer Lerner, Professor of Public Policy and Management, is just that sort of seeker. Her office looks out over the quad, and as The Citizen interviewed her, a black SUV and security personnel were coincidentally waiting for some unidentified luminary. “Yes, there they are,” she said, and it was the ubiquity of the experience that prompted her, in part, to examine what it means to be the person at the center of the swirl. Using her position as Founder and Director of Leadership Decision Making, a Harvard executive education course, she was able to access and interview leaders across a range of sectors and a range of ranks. The results are two recently published studies with fascinating but counterintuitive results. Professor Lerner and her coauthors have upended the portrait of the burdened boss, the stress-fractured figure who ages faster than the rest of us owing to the weight of his responsibilities.

“Upon the King!” Shakespeare’s Henry V exclaims, “let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our children, and our sins lay on the king!” Four hundred years later, we still embrace the picture of the leader who bears his subordinates’ loads, and his own, as well. But it turns out that leaders—especially powerful ones—actually experience less stress than nonleaders. This was demonstrated in Lerner’s first study via self-reported responses and through measurements of cortisol levels. (Cortisol is an adrenal hormone that the body releases in response to stress.) The second study showed that decreasing stress levels are observable even among leaders perched on different rungs of their respective ladders: the higher up one goes, the lower the stress. “Not only are leaders less stressed than non-leaders,” study co-author Gary Sherman, also of Harvard, has been quoted saying, “but more powerful, higher-ranking leaders are less stressed than less powerful, lower-ranking leaders.”

The reason? “Control,” says Lerner. Such control, she notes, does not require mastery of the environment, but rather “the perception of having influence” over the course of events and subordinates. More highly-ranked leaders have greater control, and thus less stress. So perhaps it is Mel Brooks, rather than Shakespeare, to whom we should turn: “It’s good to be the king.”

It is not only leaders who can profit from these observations, however. Allowing subordinates to experience the perception of influence—what Lerner calls “the sense of predictability that goes hand in hand with perceived control”—may be able to reduce their stress levels, as well. “Having control can mean things like flex time,” she notes, “so I get to decide which days I work at home, which nights I work late.” These “little increments of control” may be enough to give subordinates some of the same benefits as their bosses.

Before leaping to the assumption that the head that wears a crown lies easy, however (to paraphrase a different Shakespearean Henry), Lerner presents an important caveat. Leaders who operate in “contested hierarchies” don’t experience decreased stress levels like their more stable counterparts.

So is this why presidents age so noticeably in office? Is this why Obama’s hair has gone white?

“That is certainly one possibility,” Lerner says. “He is in a contested hierarchy, and his leadership is attacked on a daily basis and so our data really can’t speak to his situation. But cortisol and other stress hormones are most likely harming his health.” Maybe the saying should be Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown—if that crown can be taken.

Of course, none of this answers the ur-question: Do leaders have less stress because they’re leaders? Or are leaders leaders because they’re less prone to stress? Lerner phrases it more succinctly: “Ah, yes—are leaders born or made. My hunch, absent data, is that it’s both.”

All this is presumably good news for Kennedy School students who aspire to climb the ranks. Just think—all the effort and the long hours will eventually be rewarded by a stress-free sinecure where your car comes with a driver! And if, on the climb, you’re lucky enough to have a boss who takes lessons from Dr. Lerner, and allows you the perception of influence, you’ll probably have less stress as you ascend, too. It really is good to be the king.

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Omphaloskepsis, Facebook, and the Filter Bubble

There’s something evocative about the boy in the bubble, isn’t there? Whether cloyingly portrayed by John Travolta, or childishly taunted over Trivial Pursuit by George Costanza (“I’m sorry, the answer we were looking for is moops”), the hermetically sealed child—or, rather, the idea of him—resonates. It was Peggy Noonan and William Safire who first conflated the plastic cage to the White House, and in so doing changed the emphasis of the construct. Originally, being “in the bubble” described a person who longs to connect to an existence he can observe but from which he is separated; Safire used it instead to describe someone who is separated from an existence to which he can no longer connect.

It’s this newer meaning that attaches to the Internet-related term “filter bubble,” which is the topic of one of this week’s readings for DPI 659. As Eli Pariser says, “What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.” Casual Web users may be alarmed to find that the Internet makes certain choices for us, which Eli’s TED talk illustrates by comparing two friends’ identical Google searches, and the different results they obtain. “Algorithms curate the world for us,” he says.

But in the real world, curators curate the world for us, so what’s the worry? Newspaper editors determine what we see in their papers, legislators make our laws with minimal public input, and, above all, our own schemata determine how we sort our experiential existence. Each of these operates as much by what is excluded as what is embraced. Despite that, we manage to interact with the world in ways that belie these blinders. Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties,” forty years old but still fresh, acknowledges mankind’s homophily but nevertheless focuses on the eponymous weak ties that complement the strong ones. Rather than deemphasizing these weak ties, networks like Facebook have made them all the more ubiquitous. As Christakis and Fowler note in Connected, another of this week’s readings, it’s “The Same but Different.”

The truth is, dire prognostications about Internet navel gazing have been made for years, and not much has come of them. Noted thinker Cass Sunstein has made a cottage industry out of such alarums: his 2001 book, Republic.com, he bemoans the degree to which Internet users close themselves off to intellectual challenge or contradiction, to the detriment of democracy. Ten years later he’s still at it, raising hue and cry that the feedback loop of political outrage in chatrooms threatens the Republic itself. In the meantime, few of us have morphed into hikikomori (or their savant cousins, the otaku).

Agoraphobes and hermits fascinate and horrify social cultures, and there’s something about the solipsistic qualities of social networks that causes the same mesmerized revulsion. Perhaps it’s a head-shaking disbelief that digital connections constitute real-life contact; perhaps it’s the concern that Internet users hear only what they want to hear; perhaps it’s the false perfection that glazes some online personas. As social networks have exploded during the past half-decade, their rise has caused paroxysms of handwringing. (Social networking isn’t all that new, of course. In 1994, my friend James Gwertzman invented Facebook a decade before M.Z.—a Harvard professor says so!) But does the Internet, whether via human proclivity or corporate algorithm, really enforce an inescapable echo chamber? Has the filter bubble actually aggravated partisanship to the point of stagnating political discourse?

Well, the news isn’t nearly so dire. In a study of Facebook users, Center of Atention: How Facebook Users Allocate Attention Across Friends, Eytan Bakshy and his coauthors show that polarization isn’t really the clear endgame. They observe that “the fraction of attention to users’ top k contacts, f(k), decreases as a function of activity when averaged over all individuals.” In other words, the more time you spend in online social media venues, the wider your circle of friends, not vice versa.

Far and away, the Web has expanded our expectations and broadened our horizons. In the pre-Internet era, the availability of data and the egocentric network could be compared to a reliable but underpressured water fountain in some city park. Unregulated, the Internet is like the hydrant knocked over by a car chase. If Google et al have managed to funnel that into a strong-but-manageable garden hose, there’s still a significant net gain. And that’s fine by me.

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Wikipedia and the RTCC

As noted in the “About” section, this blog was begun as a requirement for a class covering digital media and its social power. In order to ground us students in the topic, the professor has taken us on a head-spinning tour of the Internet itself, from its origins through its epochs and into the heart of the writhing beast it is now. We’ve touched on Coasean floors and long tails and Web 2.0. We’ve had to get Twitter accounts and bit.ly accounts and start Google groups. And then, of course, there’s this blog.

This is the first blog assignment: an introduction to Wikipedia and instructions to make an account. Now, I love Wikipedia: its immediacy and depth. On night two of the Democratic National Convention, I went to Wikipedia to check on the phrase “There you go again” after Bill Clinton used it. As I clicked on the page about the phrase (it has its own page!), I saw that Clinton’s paraphrase was already there, not two minutes after he had spoken the words. The folks at Britannica could only dream… That currency is why Wikipedia is a go-to source when I need quick information and I’m not worried about scholarly standards. Boss says “I need background on American suicide stats, stat!” and I hit Wikipedia even before I go to Google. Even when I am trying to meet scholarly standards, a Wikipedia article is a terrific cheat-sheet for other, more acceptable (for now!) sources.

So I anticipated that today’s assignment—find an article about which you have expertise and evaluate the article—would end up reinforcing my affection. Well, it did—but only in the manner of finding a flaw in someone you love. (As Sean Maguire says in Good Will Hunting, “That’s the good stuff.”)

I chose to check the page for the NYPD’s Real Time Crime Center, something about which I have a certain amount of expertise. The RTCC is a database hub and search engine that can rapidly mine a myriad of databases for information from billions of law-enforcement records and public records. When a detective seeks information about an individual or location, or other data associated with an ongoing case, he or she can call the RTCC. Officers there initiate a search and can, within a few minutes, provide a wealth of intelligence that can be used for pattern identification or to develop further investigatory leads.

The article was relatively comprehensive, although it neglected to address the RTCC’s efficacy and failed to identify it as a fusion center. Those omissions were insignificant compared to the utter absence of sourcing, however. Strangely, the article’s first sentence conflated the NYPD’s RTCC with a similarly named program run by the Houston Police Department. Despite the fact that this sentence is the only one that mentions HPD, and then only via a shoe-horned conjunctival phrase, the only sources cited by the article are two articles about the HPD’s version of the center. Other than the aforementioned sentence, no other data in the Wikipedia article refers to the HPD. Instead, all the details—including historical information, technology vendors/developers, and statistics associated with the RTCC’s cost, size, and scope—refer to the NYPD’s center. But there is not a single source. (Strangely, there are several external links that are already listed that would provide verification of the article’s data; none is inserted as a citation, however.)

Now, it must be acknowledged that all the information in the article is accurate. Most of it, in fact, derives directly from published information from New York City Global Partners, an innovation exchange initiative for municipal governments. I can verify the article’s accuracy for the same reason that Philip Roth feels he can dispute interpretations of The Human Stain: because I am very close to the author of the Global Partners RTCC description, if you get my drift. Nevertheless, it’s not sourced.

Moving on to other categories of evaluation: the article is admirably neutral—in fact, the neutrality may account for the above-mentioned absence of any information about the RTCC’s efficacy. The formatting and readability are adequate, and the concinnity is good (after all, the article’s author(s) essentially paraphrased the incredibly—nay, awesomely—well-written Global Partners description). Lastly, there is only one illustration. Considering that there are plentiful photos online that were created by the NYPD, and are therefore public, it’s odd that no one has inserted pictures compatible with Wikipedia’s image-use policy.

[P.S. A wise and talented blogger friend informed me recently that citing Wikipedia in a blog “just isn’t done.” I hope he doesn’t read this.]

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MEK Comes Off The Watch List

All too often, in international affairs, America makes decisions based on the least worst choice. Administrations on the left and right, from World War II to the Cold War to the GWOT, have found themselves sharing the covers with unsavory bedmates. These relationships underpinned containment and have facilitated geographic strategy. Occasionally, they’ve even been used for the imprimatur of legitimacy. (In the building hubbub about the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s interesting to note that one part of Kennedy’s efforts to stymie the Russians was the backing of the Organization of American States, which even then was perpetually unable to reach consensus. Somehow the OAS unanimously approved the quarantine—helped, no doubt, by the chits called in from more than a few South American dictators.)

Alliances are not always clean, nor clear, nor, for that matter, consistent. One such bedfellow has been the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK.

The MEK dates back to the 1960s, but became more prominent in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. For a time, the group presented an accepted alternative to Khomeini. In 1981 managed to carry out bombings in Iran that claimed the lives of several high-value targets, including the head of the Islamic Republic Party, Iran’s second elected president, and the prime minister. Eventually these activities forced most of the leadership to flee the country. By 1986, they were based in Iraq, and were fighting on Saddam Hussein’s side during the Iran-Iraq War. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that. After the war, the group became both more entwined with Saddam and more insular. There were accounts of the group acting on Saddam’s behalf to attack the Kurds. But the word “cult” started to be associated with the group, as well, and it turned inwards. In 1997 the MEK was placed on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

By the time of the start of the 2003 Iraq War, the group was considered to be so closely aligned with Saddam that coalition forces bombed the MEK’s compound near Fallujah. As Iraq devolved and America sought to pick partnerships, MEK members and their lobbyists began to make significant progress in rebranding the group as a viable opposition force to employ against Khamenei.

Much of this was covered well—and analyzed better—in a RAND monograph co-authored by a friend of mine, Jeremiah Goulka. (Jeremiah, whose recent essay on his evolving political beliefs went viral, also wrote an American Prospect article suggesting the MEK would “steer the United States toward war.”) In general, however, the group has not necessarily been front-page news.

In the past weeks that changed. Several recent articles, among them Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker piece and a Guardian article, have made reference to their tangled history. And today, Secretary of State Clinton took MEK off the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations. While not much has been heard from the various lobbyists who have sought this for years (including Rudy Giuliani, Porter Goss, John Bolton, and Howard Dean), opposing entities have made clear their dissatisfaction with the decision.

What prompted all this? Obvious explanations include the prominence of the MEK’s supporters, or humanitarian concern for MEK members.

But other possibilities exist. Early this week, Iran claimed that explosives were used to sabotage power lines leading to the Fordow enrichment plant. There’s no endgame imaginable in which the MEK finds itself holding legitimate power in Iran, as its members imagined in the early days of the revolution. Nevertheless, members still have knowledge of and contacts in Iran, and possibly networks, even if they have no popular support. It’s certainly not impossible to imagine that they’ve been able to conduct covert operations in their former homeland, and that they’ll be able to continue doing so. After all, in addition to the alleged power-line sabotage, someone’s been killing scientists associated with Iran’s nuclear program.

If one accepts that preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear capability is a vital American national interest, and that forestalling the Israelis from taking unilateral military action prior to November 6 is a vital administration interest, and if the previous paragraph’s musings are correct, then Secretary Clinton’s—and, in all likelihood, the president’s—calculus regarding wiping the MEK slate clean becomes a bit more clear. It remains troubling, however—although what in the region is not?

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An introduction

Making a better world is inextricable from making a safer world, for everyone. I became a police officer because of a belief that every individual is his brother’s keeper, and that life is only a zero-sum game if it’s played that way. But policing faces sweeping challenges in the 21st century: intransigent racial disparities both in who commits urban crime and how severely they’re punished for it, the quagmire of the drug war, domestic counterterrorism, the rapid development of new technologies and mediums that may be exploited by criminals or abused by government. This blog will address some of these topics, as well as the digital-media topics associated with the Kennedy School class for which I’ve begun this project.

While these are the most immediate issues confronting policing, the subject about which I’m most passionate is something a bit farther over the horizon: the expanding role of police in international stability operations. In light of effective police missions in Kosovo and Haiti, and with lessons learned from more challenging efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve come to believe that policing represents a logical ancillary to—and, in some cases, substitute for—military force. It is not a tool for war-fighting, and in hot combat zones no entity can replace or replicate America’s armed forces. But local police, advised by foreign police mentors or, in extreme situations, augmented by foreign police partners, can create security while assuaging both local polities and international observers. Doing so, however, requires de-emphasizing policing’s paramilitary aspects. (In Afghanistan, for example, the efficacy and legitimacy of both the Afghan Local Police and the national police have suffered owing to the militarization of their operations.) Instead, successful police missions must strive to establish popular support by fomenting justice, treating the public with respectful equanimity, and embracing otherness rather than aggravating us-versus-them divisions. No one can surpass police from large, diverse cities, such as the NYPD or the London Met, in attaining these objectives. And when American police officers share a language and culture with the regions in which they’re sharing best practices, real change can be effected.

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