The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Do you really want to reach the top? Zuckerberg and Musk show the benefits of being No. 2

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 11, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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In recent weeks, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have (deservedly) taken a battering in the press. Zuckerberg is facing fresh scrutiny for presiding over a lucrative website that spreads deadly misinformation and facilitates human rights abuses. Musk chases headlines, engaging in juvenile Twitter high jinks while being roundly criticized for his reportedly minuscule tax bill as a proportion of his obscene net worth.

Both men are exemplars of our public fascination with rich, powerful figures at the pinnacle of their industries. Doubtless, millions across the United States aspire to replicate their riches and power. As the conventional wisdom would have it: it’s good to be the king.

There’s only one problem: that conventional wisdom is wrong. It turns out that being at the top comes with a steep cost. The optimal place to be isn’t at the top, but rather near the top, and out of the spotlight.

Consider this thought experiment: try to name the CEO of Tesla, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Twitter. Now, try to name the second-in-command at each of those companies, the right-hand man or woman who nonetheless wields huge amounts of day-to-day power. Most people do pretty well with the CEOs, but draw a blank for their immediate subordinate (except perhaps for Facebook, where Sheryl Sandberg is a rare case of a well-known figure just below the pinnacle of a company).

That’s because leaders act like lightning rods for the systems they run. Public scrutiny and criticism strikes them, drawing it away from the rest of the company structure.

But according to recent research, it turns out those lightning strikes take a damaging toll, while powerful subordinates are left unscathed.

In one 2021 study, economists decided to take a look at how stress affects CEOs. Using a clever methodology, they were able to separate out CEOs facing high-levels of stress from those who were navigating comparatively serene waters. What they found was that a stressed CEO was likely to visibly age about a year faster than one who wasn’t facing much stress. They also found that CEOs facing particularly difficult periods for their industry had a life span decrease by 1.5 years. Similarly, a study published in the British Medical Journal that stretched across 17 countries over several centuries found that politicians who won elections and served as a prime minister or president tended to die younger than the candidates who lost and stayed out of the fray. On average, their life span was 4.4 years shorter than the candidate who lost the election.

Similar dynamics are observed in nonhuman primates. Using a process called DNA methylation, researchers are able to measure biological aging, a metric that shows how rapidly the body is aging relative to the passage of time. In one study, a baboon that ascended to the apex experienced physiological aging that would be expected to take place over three years, all in the span of just ten calendar months. When researchers from Princeton University measured levels of a harmful stress-related hormone in primates, they found that baboons experienced lower stress as they ascended up through the hierarchy, with one exception: the alpha male. At the peak, the stress — and the toll it took on the body — went through the roof. As the researchers put it: “being at the very top may be more costly than previously thought.”

As I explain in my book, “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us,” that finding led to a surprising conclusion: that being the beta male in the primate hierarchy was the optimal position. Being second-in-command provided all the security and resource wealth afforded to the alpha, but without the constant dangers and stressors of having a target on their back.

As calls grow for Zuckerberg to resign and columns are written about how Musk is a liability to Tesla’s future, the VPs and other anonymous executives continue to escape from public scrutiny. Even though many key figures in Facebook’s management play an enormous role in the day-to-day toxicity unleashed by the social media network, nobody knows their names. By remaining out of the spotlight, they can cash in, enjoy their power, but avoid the deadly effects of being at the very top.

The lesson isn’t just that being second-in-command is often better than being the kingpin; it’s also that our scrutiny needs to look beyond the figureheads. The recent leaks from Facebook prove the point: When we stop fixating on Mark Zuckerberg and start looking more closely at the system he oversees, the rot becomes apparent. So, while we can all learn a thing or two from baboons about the best position to aim for when it comes to our own hierarchies, our society must also learn that public scrutiny shouldn’t stop with our fixation on the roguish alpha male.