Manfred Kets De Vries: Harness the alpha male for greater success

Are you an Alpha male leader? When drive, competitiveness and commitment are too much, writes Manfred Kets De Vries.

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Jeff Bezos, the chairman and chief executive of Amazon, is hailed as one of the most prominent captains of industry. Known for his charisma, business prowess and bold and innovative ideas, Mr Bezos’ professional trajectory and key role in the growth of e-commerce are inspirational.

But Amazon employees have discovered that working for Mr Bezos is quite a challenge. He is a typical alpha male – hard-headed, task-orientated and extremely opinionated.

And the more pressure Mr Bezos feels to perform, the more his leadership style transforms from being constructive and challenging to intimidating and even abusive. He is known for outbursts of anger when things don’t go his way, and for making demoralising statements such as Why are you wasting my life? or This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document?
Faced with this alpha-male behaviour, people who work for him do so in constant fear. While this Darwinian-like, performance-based culture reaps benefits for Amazon’s customers, it comes at the price of a devalued and demoralised workforce.

Leader of the pack

Although there are many successful female leaders, they tend to be not as intimidating as the typical alpha, who is generally male. The term derives from the animal world, where the alphas are among the highest-ranked individuals within a given group. Any challenge is dealt with decisively and savagely.

Similarly, in the world of homo sapiens, alphas are only happy when they are in charge. Generally, they are autocratic, intensely competitive and results-orientated achievers. Through courage, confidence, tireless energy and a fighting spirit, they lead others in competitive and crisis situations. But the characteristics that make alphas great can also lead to their downfall.

Hubris is one example. An alpha's exceptional strengths can become a tragic flaw. They often lack emotional intelligence and are not good at considering other perspectives. This single-minded focus, hard-driving competitiveness, interpersonal impatience and difficulties in controlling their anger often endanger their interpersonal relationships.

As pressures increase, an alpha's leadership style can move from constructive to one of intimidation and even abuse. Not surprisingly, companies run by destructive alphas can easily go down the drain.

So has the aggressive, alpha-male style of leadership had its day?

Interestingly, the closest relative of homo sapiens is not the gorilla but the bonobo, alias the pygmy chimpanzee, which is part of a matriarchal society. Bonobos create, maintain and use social networks to manage stressful conditions.

Given our close, evolutionary relationship with our bonobo cousins, perhaps the default position in contemporary organisations should be a non-alpha – a beta – stance. Betas tend to be better team players and prefer a coaching culture, essential characteristics of the modern organisation.

Can alphas change their attitude?

Alphas find it hard to ask for help. So, rather than condemning alphas for their power-driven, abrasive behaviour, I find it useful to start by focusing on their positive qualities.

Deep down every alpha has a modicum of awareness of his weaknesses, strengths, fears and hopes. To address these it's important to first build a trustful and collaborative relationship.

Once trust is established, have alphas go through a 360-degree feedback exercise. Sometimes, presenting data that illustrates their intimidating style can trigger defensive reactions. With this in mind, the interface has to be a tactful "dance".

Eventually, it will be the very ambitiousness that drives alpha behaviour, which creates a tipping point for change.

There is a place for alpha-like behaviour in organisations that need the drive, competitiveness and commitment of such leaders. However, this should be balanced with models of leadership that connect, build and nurture. Once this has been achieved, organisations such as Amazon will discover that employees who work without fear can be driven to new heights.

Manfred Kets De Vries is the distinguished clinical professor of leadership development and organisational change at Insead.

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge

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