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Taming Alpha Male Leaders

Overly masculine leadership styles are under siege like never before. Are you a hard driving high achiever with a sense of urgency and a ruthless streak? If so, the message is clear: you had better change or head for cover.

What other options are there for you? In the Alpha Male Syndrome , Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson tell us that alpha males "are aggressive, results-driven achievers who insist on top performance from themselves and others.’’1 At the extreme, "alpha anger is explosive, alpha competitiveness is ruthless, and alpha aggressiveness and urgency is in the red zone.’’2 Michael Eisner, formerly of Disney, is a classic alpha male. Chainsaw Al Dunlap, famous for his ruthless cost-cutting, would be another. Importantly, "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.’’3 Allowing the need for competitive traits, Ludeman and Erlandson endorse a more feminine style of leadership, noting that "female managers tend to be perceived as more consultative and inclusive, whereas men are more directive and task oriented.’’4

Similarly, in "Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers,’’ Scott W. Spreier, Mary H. Fontaine and Ruth L. Malloy explain  how overachievers "command and coerce rather than coach and collaborate, thus stifling subordinates.’’5 Overachievers are so bent on getting results that they cut corners, keep their plans to themselves and run roughshod over anyone who opposes them. Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There covers similar territory. He coaches executives on how to stop 20 bad habits such as never apologizing or thanking people,  taking all the credit, interrupting rather than listening and, generally, needing too strongly to be right. Explaining why he put the excessive need to win at the top of his list of bad habits, Goldsmith states: "Winning too much is easily the most common behavioral problem that I observe in successful people,’’6

Implicit in this thinking is the demand for a less dominant leadership style, one that women might more naturally display. In Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, an author of one of the chapters, Linda Coughlin, tells us "I have become convinced that feminine values – whether expressed by women or men – are too often trivialized or ignored.’’8

In another chapter, Barbara McMahon states: "In the new form of leadership, it is no longer doctrine that creates a following; it is dialogue. It’s more valuable to be able to engage than to influence. Command and control has shifted to collaboration and empowerment.’’9 Instead of dictating change to your team, you need to engage them in a dialogue by asking them questions: "You must go directly to your team and ask them for their perspective. How do they see themselves in this change? What might hold them back? What would make them willing to move forward?’’10 The shift here is from telling to asking, from being right to being open, from scoring goals to coaching adding that the need to win is the core issue, because "it underlies nearly every other behavioral problem.’’7

Masculine and Feminine Leaders, Which are Best?

The revolution away from excessively masculine cultures is unstoppable. Not that there are more women in executive ranks, but feminine styles of working are becoming more valued. No one today would argue with the value of being more inclusive with your team, collaborative with your colleagues and nurturing with top talent. But we need to beware of all-or-nothing bandwagons. Women might be better leaders than men within organizations or with strategic partners. But to survive in hyper-competitive markets, we will surely fail without a relentless drive to win. So, we need organizational cultures with a balance of masculine and feminine traits.

Focusing on alpha males and overachievers is unhelpful if we overlook the underlying culture that creates them. Quiet, low key employees are just as shaped by masculine cultures as high achievers. A culture that rewards only the drive to win makes everyone want to be a hero. We admire heroes in sports for good reason: we want to be like them. While most of us can’t be heroes in sports, we can act out our hero drive in our workplace. The question is: How can we be heroes without needing to win at all costs?

A Hero at Work

In today’s knowledge economy, being a hero at work means being a solution generator, someone with all the answers. The hero consistently develops brilliant solutions to problems. Providing answers is the only form of contribution heroes at work know how to make. Their career success is based on their analytical skills, their ability to THINK. They ask questions to make their own decisions, not to draw solutions out of others.

Being a heroic solution generator is a masculine ideal. It’s about winning just as surely as it is in sports. Instead of shedding this drive, we need to learn to be heroes without having to score all the goals. Coaches can be heroes too if their teams excel. Crucially, however, being a coach in business is not the same as it is in sports. Great sports coaches have all the answers, but modern business is knowledge driven. Unlike sports, business is not just about skilled execution; it needs creative thinking to win the war of ideas. To get mental work done through others, you have to be a facilitator or catalyst.  This doesn’t mean never offering your own solutions. It’s more about being a playing coach, hence knowing when to offer solutions and when to draw them out of others. Managers need to redefine themselves as coaches, catalysts, brokers, facilitators, promoters, orchestra conductors, stewards or any identity that moves them from the debilitating self-reliance of the individual contributor, the solution generator.

The Hero’s Model of Management

Managers, for heroes, are decision makers. Their job is to make decisions for their teams. They thrive on opportunities to tell others how to do things. Heroic managers regard facilitating as not real work or as simply boring. It’s no thrill for a hero to be merely a catalyst for the creative thinking and actions of others.

How to be confident without having the answers

Managers sometimes lose confidence when they realize that their team members have better answers. They feel stuck because their confidence has always been based on their ability to offer solutions. It comes as a revelation that they can base their confidence on the ability to draw ideas out of others. Rather than driving yourself to keep up with developments across innumerable technologies, you simply have to remember a small set of repeatable questions. Think how much more confident can you be now.

  • What options do you see to deal with this issue?
  • What are the pros and cons of those options?
  • What obstacles might block your preferred option?
  • How might we surmount those obstacles?
  • What would you really like to see happen
  • How would your proposal meet your needs?
  • What are the benefits/costs of your proposal
  • Who else needs to be involved?
  • How can we make sure it happens?

The Hero’s Poor Emotional Intelligence

Heroic managers have low emotional intelligence because they focus on their own needs. They may be active in meetings, seeming to be good team players, but they fail to reap the full benefits of what others can contribute because they like to sell their own solutions. When two sides want to be right, the chance of open, creative thinking is slim. Low emotional intelligence underlies the assumption that a logical argument based on hard facts should carry the day because everyone is (presumably) rational. But people resist one-way solutions. It’s not just that there may be better ones but that they feel devalued by being left out. One-sided solution generation conveys the message to others that their input isn’t good enough.

Engaging with clients

Heroic managers rush to offer solutions to clients. They ask fact-gathering questions to develop answers to a client’s problem rather than asking facilitative questions like: "What would you like to see happen?’’ or "What sort of solution would best meet your needs?’’ When heroic managers propose their own solutions, their first attempts are often rejected. Instead of switching to facilitative mode, they try harder until something sticks. Heroic managers are stuck because they’ve conditioned their clients to expect them to have all the answers.

Managing Change

Heroic managers are one-way communicators. They think that lots of communication, offered frequently, is the way to get people on board. Heroic managers demoralize people by implying that management is in the driver’s seat. People then feel expendable and devalued because it is painfully clear that their opinion is of no relevance in planning the change. People may react more to feeling devalued than to the change itself.

Managing Performance and Giving Negative Feedback

Heroic managers deliver feedback rather than draw improvement plans out of subordinates. Hence why feedback is done so badly, usually generating defensiveness. Facilitative managers ask supportive questions to help team members acknowledge their own weak performance and devise their own corrective actions. A facilitative approach with a team member who communicated badly in a meeting would be to ask: "What do you think went well and not so well in the meeting?’’ and then "What could you have done differently to avoid that?’’ Or ‘How do you think you could manage situations like that more smoothly in future?’’ Team members are more likely to be committed to improvement if they devise their own action plans.


Managers with a heroic mindset sometimes hesitate to assert themselves because they know how infuriating it is for another hero’s judgement to be questioned and how it can provoke a defensive, angry reaction. In facilitative mode, they could assert themselves by asking supportive questions to help others explore options in terms of their own interests. For example, a question like "What would be the advantages for you of doing X?’’ is less confrontational than the statement "I think it would be better to do X.’’ Crucially, the focus is on the target person’s interests, not on the question-asker’s need to score points or be right. So, it is possible to be assertive without being confrontational.

The Bottom Line

If your business can succeed with only efficient execution, you may get away with pushing people to work faster and harder. But if you need people to think creatively, pushing is self-defeating. The critical point here is that, in the knowledge economy, pushing not only disengages people, it simply doesn’t work. If winning is important to you, pushing is self-defeating because stress and pressure can only make people execute faster. It can’t make them think more clearly. On the contrary, anxiety and fear can cause the brain to freeze and be less creative. You can only foster creative thinking personally by asking people good questions, not as if you were conducting a police interrogation but in a manner that encourages openness, safety and trust.

The bottom line is that there is still a vital place for masculine competitiveness in business but you need to channel it into beating the external competition, not to dominating everyone inside the organization. The second key point is that shifting your identity from goal scorer to coach means letting go of your need to offer solutions. This means asking more and telling less. Being a playing coach, however, you can follow the 80-20 rule – 80 percent of the time you should be drawing solutions out of others.


1.    Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, Harvard Business School Press, 2006, p3.
2.    Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, P9.
3.    Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, P32.
4.    Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, P22.
5.    ‘’Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers,’’ Scott W. Spreier, Mary H. Fontaine and Ruth L. Malloy, Harvard Business Review, June 2006, P1.
6.    What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith, Hyperion,  2007,  P45.
7.    Goldsmith, P45.
8.    Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, edited by Linda Coughlin, Ellen Wingard and Keith Hollihan, Jossey-Bass, 2005, P11.
9.    Enlightened Power, P290.
10.   Enlightened Power, P291.

This article was originally published in Ivey Business Journal Online, March/April, 2008.  

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