3 Hormones That Create Strong Leaders

If common sense isn’t enough to drive us back to the strong-silent leaders, biology might be.

Alan Trapulionis
Jun 26 · 6 min read
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Most of us are familiar with endorphins and dopamine.

Endorphins are the anti-pain hormone. Their sole purpose is to alleviate our physical pain and reward us for it. If you’ve ever felt a runner’s high — the feeling of enlightenment and release — it was endorphins at work. You will feel the full damage you did to your muscles one hour later, but, for now, you’re feeling great.

In an evolutionary sense, endorphins were crucial for our survival. It’s the hormone that enables us to go gather berries even if you’re injured or ill. It’s the hormone that makes us want to push ourselves to the limit by rewarding us with a gentle high.

Dopamine is the “I did it!!” hormone. Our bodies release dopamine when we complete a task we set for ourselves. We get a hit of dopamine whenever we achieve something we deem important. Whenever you cross an item off your to-do list, you get a hit of dopamine. No explanation needed here — wanting to get stuff done is a very useful function in all areas of life. The only danger is that software creators are getting scarily good at exploiting our craving for dopamine.

Those two hormones are incredibly important both on an individual and a societal level. But it wasn’t until I heard Simon Sinek speak about leadership that I learned that true leaders are governed by 3 more hormones that were previously just words to me.

1. Serotonin: the social hierarchy hormone

You may not like it, but social hierarchies are:

a) deeply ingrained into us (watch Jordan Peterson talk about lobsters)

b) madly useful

Why? Simon gives an example of a primitive, brute society. If you’re built like a Saber-toothed tiger, you’re going to elbow your way through to today’s dinner and eat the whole thing. If you’re the more artistic member of the family, you’re the one getting the elbow in what you hope one day grows into a proper predator’s face.

What happens next benefits nobody. The alpha overeats and sleeps. The artist is hungry and scared to wake up the alpha if the danger comes. Both die.

Humans have evolved to make social hierarchies work for them. First of all, we accept them. Nobody is mad that your boss makes more money than you, Sinek says. Nobody is questioning presidential motorcades or the fact that their dentist comes to their house to fix their teeth.

No, we’ll gladly hand over our plate to the alpha male. We won’t be happy about it, but we’ll hand over our mate to the alpha male. We will do favors for them and sacrifice our privileges to strengthen theirs. That is serotonin hard at work.

Funny thing: you’ve probably heard about women getting on the same menstrual cycle when they live together. In reality, they all get on the cycle of the alpha woman. Nature wants the alpha woman to mate with alpha male to produce alpha children. So the menstrual cycle phenomenon is simply nature’s way of saying, when she’s off the market, you’re all of the market. There’s going to be no competition while she’s down.

But it’s a two-way street. In return, we expect our alphas to be the ones who go face the danger once it comes. We expect our alphas to be the ones who give up their privileges and sacrifice themselves for the greater good during wartime. We expect our alphas to keep everyone within our social group safe and accepted, right to the weakest member.

That is the social contract governed by serotonin. Once it is broken, we get furious. We don’t like people who spend $1,000 on Gucci shoes to artificially inflate their status. We despise Wall Street CEOs who sacrifice their employees’ pensions to pay themselves $150m end-year bonuses. We rebel against business owners who lock themselves up with a few privileged friends and neglect the rest of the company. We riot against such leaders. Because they lack oxytocin.

2. Oxytocin: the hormone of love

Oxytocin might be primarily associated with romantic relationships because the hormone is released when people bond: emotionally, physically, socially. But it plays an imperative balancing role in how we structure our societies.

If serotonin is the alpha hormone — which basically makes us want to be alphas and want to have strong alphas within our society — then oxytocin sounds very much like the thing that keeps those strong alphas sane and just. Oxytocin is what makes a mere winner a great leader.

On a micro level, oxytocin is responsible for much of the irrational decision making when choosing who to do business with. The importance of the handshake, for example, cannot be overstated. Turns out, the deal-sealing handshake Leo Di Caprio’s character was demanding at the end of Django Unchained is far more than a mere formality — it’s a release of oxytocin that validates whether all our rational contract clauses are valid on a more primal level.

With business partnerships, oxytocin is the mechanism that signals the “gut feeling” whether we’re going into the right relationship. If you’re anxious going into a business partnership, it’s oxytocin trying to tell you you’re making a mistake.

How does it know? The main thing oxytocin observes is the amount of energy and time you spend on other people. Sinek says there’s no way to trick it. If I told you I just gave $1,000 to a charity this morning, what would you think? You’d say, good for you. But if I told you that I worked double shifts for two months to get a week off to take my girlfriend to Cairo, because she always wanted to see the pyramids since she was a child, what would you say then? You’d say that I’m a role model.

One of oxytocin’s main functions is to discern who to trust into your inner circle. This is a crucial function, because even the greatest leaders only have so many people they can know on a first-name basis. True leadership emerges when one person trusts and enables 5 trust-worthy people. And then those trust-worthy people trust and enable 5 more trust-worthy people each. The stronger the initial impulse, the more wide-spread the ripple effect.

And when oxytocin is lacking, cortisone takes over and drives the society to hell.

3. Cortisone: the fight-or-flight hormone

Cortisone is an extremely useful survival hormone. It’s the one that stiffens your muscles, makes you paranoid, sharpens your reflexes and makes your heart produce three times the adrenaline.

It’s a contagious hormone. When an antelope hears grass rustling, she instantly pulls her head up and starts looking around for danger. Other antelopes didn’t hear the grass rustle — but they understood everything they needed to understand from the initial antelope. Now the entire herd is wide awake and ready to sprint. The herd lives to chew grass another day, thanks to cortisone.

Humans don’t often meet bears nowadays, but they face other dangers. When you hear the floor squeaking at night, the first thing you do is wake up your partner. And when someone in the office mentions layoffs, the cortisone within your body is going to instantly remember all the times your boss didn’t laugh at your jokes. You’ll be drinking wine with that old friend who works at that firm the next evening.

So it’s definitely a useful function, even today. Especially today. But it has its price.

When cortisone takes over, it needs to take energy from other parts of your body. One of those areas is growth: your body doesn’t really care about growing nails when it’s under attack. Another is your immune system: all anti-virus protective shields are down while you’re in a staredown with a tiger.

The problem arises when we live in a continuous state of stress. Sinek calls them “drops of cortisone” on a daily basis. It’s the insecure job, the wrong boss, the less-than-a-sure-thing boyfriend.

When we live in a dangerous place — whether mentally or physically — our confused (or maybe not?) bodies keep producing cortisone all the time. We don’t grow, and we become prone to disease. We’re slowly dying.

Today, it’s our jobs that are killing us, Sinek says. When our bosses are despotic, arrogant and self-isolating — when they’re being the selfish alpha — this translates into a ripple effect of instability and insecurity. The further away from the privileged inner circle you are, the more stressed out you become.

That’s why you’ll find such dramatic differences in how seemingly similar businesses interact with their customers. The customer representatives, the salesmen, the waiters — they’re the first line of defence, and their jobs are the least secure. Their position in the herd is the weakest. And judging by their empathy and sense of security, you can pretty much draw all the conclusions you need to draw about their leader.

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