The end for alpha males

In the buccaneering times, they were kings of the dealmaking jungle. But in a recession we deserve more thoughtful leadership.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Times are tough in the corporate world and are likely to get tougher - the recession will prove painful and prolonged for many. Although the alpha chief executive (ACE) may not be top of the list of those deserving our sympathy, it's probably worth sparing a moment to reflect on the particular difficulties this type is experiencing, if only because they are at risk of becoming an endangered species.

ACEs are an easily identifiable breed who are prepared to sacrifice family, friends and personal wellbeing to climb the greasy pole. These are men who know in their hearts that work-life balance is for wimps and women, whatever they may say to the HR director. They truly believe that they do this for our collective good, of course: they are the wealth-creators, the employment-givers and the dealmakers. So when, as a result of the failings of others - such as politicians, regulators and central bankers - they are unable to fulfil any of these roles, they suffer.

Tirelessly and courageously, they have pursued glittering success. They were always the first over the barricades, oblivious to whether or not the troops were following. Motivating the team is not their style. You are either for them or agin them. When times were different, they were seen as charismatic leaders; now they find themselves described as bullies.

ACEs have zero tolerance for the mistakes of others; they never praise but are quick to blame. However, they are insulated by their egos and have no awareness of their own shortcomings. Indeed, they experience any form of feedback as a kind of personal attack. Thus, in a recession, when the board is talking of oversight, governance and accountability, they feel thwarted. And when the non-executive directors want to look at the corporate risk profile and consider the succession plan rather than opportunities for takeovers and acquisitions, ACEs feel something close to hatred for these part-time, interfering has-beens.

They regard independent NEDs at best as 'baubles on the Christmas tree', in the words of the late ACE, Tiny Rowland; or, at worst, as a necessary evil thrust on them by Cadbury, Higgs et al - and they're doubtful about the 'necessary' bit.

They are in many ways exceptional people. They are focused, disciplined, call the shots and know how to take decisions. They do not seek approval and they know no fear. Except one. They're terrified by boredom: the boredom of the mundane business of actually running the company in times of trouble, when deals can't be made and the opportunities for corporate heroism are few.

The ACEs of yesterday may well be on their way to extinction, and few will mourn their passing - seen, as they are by many, as the great destroyers of shareholder value. But we should not imagine that a new generation of consensual, collaborative leaders will spring ready-formed to take their place. One of the most pernicious aspects of the ACE style of management is that it filters down through an organisation, as the bullied learn from the role model and become bullies themselves. It takes time and commitment to change corporate culture, but it can happen. Nothing stimulates this kind of change more rapidly than the nasty shock of failure.

Can an ACE be rehabilitated? In 99% of cases the answer is probably not - although the authors of Alpha Male Syndrome (Harvard Business School Press, 2006) hold out some hope. Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson suggest deep-breathing exercises and other strategies, but somehow I don't think this will cut it with the big alpha beast. Instead, he will probably retreat to the forest, nursing his wounded pride and counting his pay-off, to lie low until the economy recovers and he can beat his chest once more.

In the meantime, however, a new generation of leaders may have acquired enough power to see off the old silver-back if he tries to make a return. The leadership model itself may have undergone a real shift in his absence and taken root in the corporate psyche.

The classic ACE already looks as old-fashioned as shoulderpads. His dysfunctional behaviour was tolerated only when he was bringing home the bacon. Now the pendulum has swung and he has become a liability. We need strong leadership in the kind of severe downturn many are predicting and some are experiencing, but not the intimidating, fear-inducing kind that inhibits ideas and causes people to cover up mistakes. Soft and woolly is not an option when survival is the goal, but then neither is arrogant and impatient.

We need CEOs who demonstrate ethical standards, relate truthfully to their people and can get engagement and commitment. Decency and integrity are the marks of a leader who understands how to get the best from people, even when both sides know he may have to downsize, retrench or whatever euphemism is used for sacking people in tough times. Adversity tempers good leaders just as it destroys the bad.

As in politics, there is a cycle in corporate leadership. History suggests that in difficult times, the Americans tend to elect a Democrat as president. They seem to have seen in Obama a more caring, inclusive approach - choosing someone who, rather than going to war abroad, prefers to cultivate green shoots at home.

Will a warmer, kinder style of corporate leader emerge as a result of the downturn? Will a more thoughtful commander-in-chief, who inspires rather than dominates, succeed? Let us hope so, and that the ACE has roared his last.

Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of plc, private, charitable, arts and government boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways.

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