The alpha male syndrome

If this complex set of characteristics becomes unbalanced, legendary strengths can turn into destructive flaws.

by Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Human history is the story of alphas, those indispensable powerhouses who take charge, conquer new worlds and move heaven and earth to make things happen. Whether heading a band of warriors, bringing a vital new product to market, guiding a team to glory or steering a giant conglomerate, alphas are hardwired for achievement and eager to tackle challenges that others find intimidating. Along the way, they inspire awe and admiration - and sometimes fear and trembling. Wherever they are and whatever they do, they stand out from the crowd, usually leaving an indelible impression on those whose lives they touch.

The business world swarms with alpha males (and females). Although there are no hard numbers to support this approximation, we estimate that alphas comprise about 75% of top executives. Some are larger-than-life legends who run giant companies; others lead in relative obscurity at the top of little-known firms or small departments.

The healthy ones are natural leaders trusted by colleagues, respected by competitors, revered by employees and adored by Wall Street. But other alpha males are risks to their organisations - and sometimes to themselves.

Inspiring resentment instead of respect and fear instead of trust, they create corporate soap operas that make life miserable for co-workers, create expensive problems for their companies and derail fast-track careers, including their own. Why? Because their greatest strengths have turned into tragic flaws.

Alphas are aggressive, results-driven achievers who insist on top performance from themselves and others. Courageous and self-confident, they are turned on by bold, innovative ideas and ambitious goals, and they pursue their objectives with tenacity and an urgent sense of mission. Their intense competitive drive keeps them focused on the gold - silver or bronze simply won't do - and they're always keeping score. Often charismatic figures who command attention, they exert influence even when they're low-key and inconspicuous.

Alphas are found at every level of the organisational chart. Whether they're at the forefront of a global corporation or stacking shelves in a retail store, they look for ways to increase their power and influence, dominating meetings, taking the lead on projects and otherwise making their presence felt. Indeed, many a corporate bigwig started out as an alpha nobody who somehow stood out from the crowd. This does not mean that all good leaders are alphas or that only alphas have what it takes to lead a group to victory. On the contrary, depending on the nature of the business and the organisation, many leadership positions are better filled by men and women who are not alphas, and who achieve their goals with styles that better suit their personalities and circumstances.

However, even those executives possess some alpha qualities, or they simply could not lead and they certainly could not lead alphas. Those positive leadership qualities constitute one-half of the alpha syndrome.

The other half consists of a package of not-so-positive symptoms that leads to everything from minor business problems to full-fledged organisational catastrophes and personal disasters.

In general, men are more likely than women to have alpha characteristics, and the business world contains many more alpha males than alpha females, especially in the top executive ranks. In our research, men scored much higher than women on measures of the alpha risk factors. What does this mean? In short, alpha females get angry, but they're seldom as belligerent as alpha males. They like to win and they set aggressive goals for themselves and their teams, but they're not as intimidating or as authoritarian as their male counterparts. And while they can be fiercely competitive, they're less likely than alpha males to use ruthless tactics or to see peers and colleagues as rivals who have to be destroyed.

Make no mistake: the world needs alphas. We could not do without their courageous leadership, their goal-driven focus and their unwavering sense of responsibility. At their best, alphas are world-beaters. When they are not at their best - when they are unaware, out of balance, or out of control - they create problems that diminish the value of their productive energy. And when they are at their worst, they go down in flames and drag their co-workers, their families and their organisations with them. We call this complex set of characteristics the alpha male syndrome because it fits both the basic definition of the word - 'a distinctive or characteristic pattern of behaviour' - and its usual connotation of disease or dysfunction: 'a complex of symptoms indicating the existence of an undesirable condition or quality'.

In the business world, of course, most alpha males inhabit the middle range. To one degree or another, they fluctuate between healthy and unhealthy alpha tendencies: their magnetic leadership commands respect, but their aggressive tactics create resistance, resentment and revenge; people stand in awe of their competence and can-do energy, but they often hate reporting to them or being in a team with them.

The difference between alphas who soar and alphas who sink is most evident in the area of interpersonal relations. Take Michael Dell and Michael Eisner, two classic alpha males. Brilliant, driven and aggressive, both aimed high at an early age and achieved extraordinary success in businesses marked by innovation. In 1984, Dell, then a 19-year-old college student, started the company that bears his name and became the youngest CEO ever to crack the Fortune 500.

That same year, Eisner capped a high-flying Hollywood career by being named chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. He quickly propelled Disney from the doldrums of the entertainment industry to the mother of brand names.

Fast-forward to 2005: Dell is named America's Most Admired Company by Fortune magazine, while the vanquished IBM bows out of the PC business.

In the meantime, the sordid details of Eisner's hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz are dragged into public view, and a board revolt culminates in Eisner's loss of his chairmanship and resignation as CEO.

Both men had all it takes to excel in business and leave a lasting mark on society: competence, creativity, astute judgment, abundant energy, daring vision, unflagging self-confidence and more. But Dell leveraged his alpha assets to become a leader who makes everyone around him better, while alpha blind spots got the better of Eisner's prodigious ability.

In the last years of Eisner's reign, the atmosphere at Disney was reportedly marked by paranoia, backbiting and civil war; the culture at Dell is collaborative and collegial. By all accounts, the iron-fisted Eisner needed to subordinate the other alphas in his orbit; Dell recruited seasoned executives and learned from them. Eisner consolidated his power and hogged the credit; Dell, at the height of his success, handed the CEO position to Kevin Rollins and created an unusual power-sharing arrangement. Most of Dell's talented, enormously wealthy senior executives choose to stay with the company rather than retire or accept one of the many choice job offers that come their way. By contrast, a joke that made the rounds in Hollywood during the Eisner years had homeless people carrying signs that read: "Will work for Disney".

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and his CEO Steve Ballmer offer another example of a positive alpha pairing. In this case, Gates is the visionary and Ballmer is more of what we would describe as a commander alpha. Gates is free to visualise and dream about how Microsoft can transform itself for the future, safe in the knowledge that Ballmer will excel at keeping the day-to-day operations going.

When we're invited into a company as consultants, it is usually at the request of a strong alpha leader who wants to make the organisation better - and most of the complaints we hear are about alpha males who drive people crazy. Employees complain that autocratic alpha managers are abusive, and that micromanaging alphas waste their time and create log-jams. Co-workers complain about alphas who are demanding, impatient and unwilling to listen. Senior executives complain that abrasive alpha managers demoralise their troops. And everyone complains that alphas think they're smarter than everyone else.

Of course, alpha males have complaints of their own: employees don't understand their directives, or don't move quickly enough, or need to be constantly monitored. Because they're naturally confident and self-directed, alphas have trouble relating to people who are hard to motivate or have a strong need to be appreciated. Some are more comfortable working with objects, systems and ideas than with human beings; their attitude is captured in this droll remark by an alpha male manager: "My job would be a lot more fun if I didn't have to work with people."

In most cases their frustration is caused by their own leadership shortcomings, not the ineptitude of others. Ken DiPietro, a former senior vice-president at Microsoft, spoke for most alpha males when he said: "No one who is sane intends to come off as mean-spirited or inflexible in communicating with staff, but you can get so caught up in your desired outcome that you forget the impact you're having on the team."

Like other alpha risks, this one stems from a strength: creative, passionate alpha males often shatter the constraints of conventional thinking and generate brilliant innovations, but the same disdain for limits can lead them over the edge of legality or propriety. The more grandiose the self-image, the bigger the over-reach. "Looking back on it, I wasn't always right," said a high-tech entrepreneur, who lost investors more than $20 million. "But I was never in doubt." That's classic alpha male hubris: they find a way to get what they want even if it means turning an audacious idea into an actionable offence.

If it's not money, it's sex. We've observed that many leaders who fit the dysfunctional alpha male typology become womanisers who use conquest and control to assert their dominance. Add to that the tendency for alphas to think they should get whatever they want and you have a perfect set-up for dramas that can ruin careers and families, weaken mighty leaders and throw organisations into turmoil.

When properly channelled and controlled, the alpha male drive to reach the top is a spur to progress, but when the ethic of what it takes to get results is carried to extremes, it becomes a menace to both personal careers and corporate health. It wreaks havoc, turning otherwise worthy alphas into bullies who intimidate, browbeat and humiliate people to get what they want, often rationalising their behaviour as necessary to get others to shape up. Combative and pathologically competitive, unhealthy alpha males need to dominate; as a result, they are constantly on guard and always looking for an advantage.

When factor analyses are applied to the data on alpha risks, three distinct themes stand out: hard-driving competitiveness, interpersonal impatience and difficulty controlling anger. This trinity represents a compelling summary of alphas who create trouble: they see everyone as a rival and every situation as a contest for supremacy, they're demanding and impatient for results, and they're veritable powder kegs. Although people in supervisory positions have fewer alpha risks overall, they are somewhat more inclined to display anger, impatience and competitiveness. It is unclear whether people with those traits are drawn to supervising others or if becoming a manager brings them out.

One way alpha combativeness plays out is in a propensity for defensive behaviour. Alpha males' intimidating style makes other people defensive and alphas respond to that defensiveness with disdain. But, paradoxically, when someone disagrees with them, or gives them critical feedback, they get defensive - only to justify their behaviour as honest truth-telling.

They think they're delivering a wake-up call when they're hurling verbal grenades. Their defensiveness stems from thinking they have all the answers and from having to prove it to others.

Put two dysfunctional alpha males together and even if they start out with common objectives, they're likely to end up in a power struggle.

When an alpha male pounces on someone who's not an alpha, the dynamic is different. As the other party tries to explain, the impatient alpha either tunes out conspicuously or cuts in with a barrage of heavy artillery.

The opponent slinks away in self-defence, pretending to get the alpha's point. Also disappearing are useful facts and important views, along with respect, trust and support. People comply with alphas and mindlessly implement their strategies, even if they don't agree with them. Effort diminishes, learning ceases and collaborative dialogue is silenced.

As troublesome as it is, defensiveness pales in comparison to the most common alpha male trait: volatility. In our study, male alphas scored markedly higher than female alphas on impatience and difficulty controlling anger (there was no significant difference in competitiveness). Male anger tends to be transparent, whether it's expressed in biting sarcasm or a blow-up. Angry women are usually less overt: their tone takes on a sharp edge, or they carp and criticise, pointing out what's wrong at every turn and ignoring what's working well.

Whether it comes out in upheavals that shatter the Richter scale, glares that melt icebergs or callous slurs that cut to the bone, alpha volatility makes for an edgy, unpredictable workplace. Because of the sheer power of their inner furnaces, alphas set the temperature of the group. Shift their thermostat from upbeat to surly, and watch the mood of the organisation plummet. Raise it into the red zone and you have a paranoid workforce.

When an anger-prone alpha male leader is about to arrive on the scene, you will see anxious people searching for clues about which personality will walk through the door. The price of that pervasive fear includes wasted energy, elevated stress levels and employees who cover their backs instead of getting their jobs done.

Many alpha males operate under the mistaken belief that fear moves people to more productive action. To be sure, the old-fashioned, hard-nosed alpha style can be a legitimate management tool, not just in war or on a football field, but in the corporate world as well. In severe crises, or at times of exceptional fear and uncertainty, tough command-and-control tactics can provide needed order and discipline.

In ordinary circumstances, however, alpha male excesses are much riskier now than they used to be. More and more leaders realise that success in the corporate jungle requires keeping a lid on abusive tendencies, and alphas who face up to their risks often learn with experience how to rise above them.

We estimate that more than half of all middle managers are alphas. Indeed, middle managers who do not possess alpha traits - or don't make a concerted effort to add them to their functional competences - are likely to plateau at that level. But so are alpha males who don't overcome their inherent risk factors. Why? Because fewer and fewer companies are willing to tolerate alpha abuses. Bullies who lead through intimidation are likely to be kept under wraps by wise CEOs, or self-destruct, or are brought down by insubordination, sabotage and other forms of jungle retribution.

Alpha males can adopt new, more effective strategies. Doing so is a bottom-line issue: when you liberate your alpha gifts and reduce your alpha liabilities, you will stand a much better chance of rising to the heights your talent deserves - and everyone will be happy to have you there.

Here are some of the benefits you can look forward to:

- Dramatic improvement in your leadership ability
- More productive and enjoyable working relationships
- Enhanced co-operation from peers and employees
- Increased respect and trust from colleagues
- Creative and harmonious teamwork
- Smoother flow of projects from conception to fruition
- More authentic self-expression and self-confidence
- Less stress, better health and a happier home life

The starting point for obtaining these rewards is to expand awareness. By becoming more aware of the impact of their behaviour, alpha males can enhance their ability to communicate, collaborate and create, leading directly to greater influence and sustainable business results. In turn, this improvement enables them to refine their intentions, bringing more authentic motivation to the surface.

For example, in 2001, Kevin Rollins, then COO and president of Dell (now CEO), wanted to add explicit values of caring, integrity, and human connection to the performance-oriented corporate culture. From Rollins' examination of his own deepest intentions, and his commitment to move beyond his analytic alpha style to become a more inspiring leader, grew an initiative called the Soul of Dell, which greatly enriched the leadership training of executives and added new criteria to the metrics used to determine bonuses.

Under this initiative, managers were evaluated not by the usual business performance standards alone but also by whether or not employees felt supported and coached. Each increment of awareness narrows the gap between noble intentions and powerful impact, and, incidentally, brings welcome health benefits by reducing stress and strain.

As business has evolved, the alpha male drive for dominance that once assured the survival of the toughest has become increasingly maladaptive.

In an environment where brains count a whole lot more than brawn, a physical pipsqueak can be a giant. In organisations that favour ensembles over solos, emotional intelligence does more to inspire loyalty than a loud roar or a puffed-up chest. Today's employees - well educated and increasingly concerned about job satisfaction and work-life balance - would sooner quit than put up with abusive managers. In addition, the widely dispersed and culturally diverse teams created by globalisation need managers who can communicate, teach and consistently motivate.

Creating an atmosphere in which trust, respect and congenial relationships flourish is vital for success in today's environment. People who feel abused have no interest in being loyal. Many simply quit, contributing to what economists see as an alarming trend: worker shortages in key industries.

A study at San Francisco State University, for example, found that the main reason people give for leaving jobs is not money, but the desire "to be respected, to be challenged and to grow".

Make no mistake, the magnificent strengths of alphas make them the most likely and the most appropriate people to assume positions of leadership. Yet, for many alphas, the skills that today's leaders require do not come naturally and those who fail to develop those skills will become increasingly out of place. The skilful management of alpha males is one of the most crucial tasks facing today's organisation.

THE FOUR TYPES OF ALPHA

A-types can be put into four categories. People are rarely all one type, but they may display a dominance in one of the four areas.

Commanders

Intense, magnetic leaders who set the tone, mobilise the troops and energise action with authoritative strength and motivation, without necessarily digging into the details.

Visionaries

Expansive, intuitive and proactive, they see possibilities and opportunities that others sometimes dismiss as impractical or unlikely, and inspire others with their vision.

Strategists

Methodical, systematic, often brilliant thinkers who are oriented toward data and facts, they have excellent analytic judgment and a sharp eye for patterns and problems.

Executors

Tireless, goal-oriented doers who push plans forward with an eye for detail, relentless discipline and keen oversight, surmounting all obstacles and holding everyone accountable.

DEALING WITH ALPHA ANGER

Whether or not you're an alpha yourself, dealing with a volatile alpha can be one of the great workplace challenges. Here are some vital tips:

1. Don't get defensive: No explanations. No excuses. Take 100% responsibility for whatever happened. Try to find a remedy.

2. Avoid feeling victimised: Of course, your alpha boss is a bully. Don't get even, get curious. Delve into why you're the one getting yelled at. If you focus on learning instead of sulking or venting, you'll stay out of the alpha quagmire.

3. Look in the mirror: Just because you don't deserve the abuse doesn't mean you didn't put the bull's eye on your back. Is being a target for someone else's anger a pattern from your long-ago past? Does it serve a purpose? If the drama offers you some secondary gain, you're likely to keep it going.

4. Get curious: Adopt the attitude that you can always learn from the alpha, no matter how explosive they are. Calmly restate their message. Ask questions to let them know you want to understand.

5. Clarify your standards: We train people how to treat us. If you're being yelled at or humiliated consistently, you've somehow made that acceptable. Be clear with yourself that abusive behaviour is not OK and the abuser will start to change.

6. Stand your ground: Be clear on what behaviour is unacceptable. Then make your boundaries known. Let the alpha know that if they cross the line, you'll walk away.

WHAT SORT OF ALPHA ARE YOU?

Strengths

- No matter what, I don't give up until I reach my end goal
- I say exactly what I think
- When I play a game, I like to win
- I have no problem challenging people
- I expect the best from the people I supervise and I help them deliver
- I make the decision I believe is correct, even when other people don't
agree
- I have strong opinions on issues I know about
- I seldom have any doubts about my ability to deliver
- When leading others, I set high performance standards.
- Even when I am successful, I always think about things that could have
been done better

Risks

- I believe that my value is defined by the results I achieve
- I don't care if my style hurts people's feelings, if that's what's
required to produce results
- When people disagree with me, I treat it as a challenge or an affront
- I tend to believe that others need to change more than I do
- If I'm asked to listen to inferior ideas, I can quickly become visibly
annoyed
- Sometimes I lose control of my temper and visibly express my anger
- People say I become curt or brusque when I have to repeat myself
- I have strong opinions about most things, even if I don't know much
about them
- Many of my work relationships have a competitive undertone
- I've been told that I don't listen as well as I should

If most of your responses to statements in the Strengths section were 'yes', you are probably an alpha with many of the strengths that make alphas such dynamic and influential leaders. If half or more of your responses to the items under Risks were 'yes', you are likely to have some alpha risks that deserve your attention. If you have seven or more, it's very likely that your alpha liabilities are already limiting your success. With nine or 10, you might well be on the brink of trouble. Don't be confused if you scored high in both categories - as alpha liabilities are mainly alpha assets taken too far or applied inappropriately, that is to be expected. Again, don't treat this as a definitive personality profile.

This is an edited extract from Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Luderman and Eddie Erlandson, Harvard Business School Press, 2006

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