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Alpha Leaders = Beta Performance? (By Pepper de Callier)

The term alpha, as used in describing personality traits, came from animal behaviorists who, when studying the activities of animals interacting with each other, discovered that groups of animals being showed deference to one specific member of the community by ritualized gestures such as bowing, allowing them to walk first in a procession, or being submissive when this one animal challenged them. To describe this particular dominant animal the name alpha was employed, as in alpha-male.

The term alpha was later applied to people in business, initially males but now to females, too, who were intelligent, confident, successful and in charge. It also, in more cases than not, denotes a strong ego—strong to the point of being a problem at times.   I recently read that a commonly held belief among organizational and behavioral professionals is that approximately 70% of all senior executives are alpha personalities.

I have worked closely with and advised alpha personalities for more than three decades and, personally, I believe these alpha characteristics can be a very positive force in creating and maintaining a successful enterprise if they are channeled properly.  Alphas take chances, they are not afraid to take decisions and to lead, sometimes into uncharted territory with confidence—a confidence that can inspire subordinates to follow. 

However, alphas, especially younger executives who are rising rapidly in their careers, sometimes have a hard time understanding their impact on others and how to deal with their alpha instincts vis-à-vis interacting with the other members of their “community”.  Paradoxically, they don’t realize that the biggest barrier to rising further in their careers is their “alphaness”.

Alphas, by their nature, process information quickly.  They spot problems and solutions before others do and, to the frustration of co-workers, they are also quick to point out the flaws in others’ ideas and comments, which can be very intimidating at times.  To them it’s only natural to point these things out right away because that is the most efficient thing to do.  They are fact-driven and intense and have little time for the “niceties” of conversation or consideration of other’s feelings because these aspects of communication and interaction are seen as wasting valuable time in the busy life of an alpha.

This is a primary source of negative friction in an organization: they don’t realize the impact they have on others.  Over the years I have been in many discussions with CEO’s   and heads of human resources regarding a rising star in their organization. They would shake their heads and say something like, “It’s not that he (or she) isn’t smart and talented, they just don’t have a clue about getting along with others. If we could only get them to see this…”  Then the discussion invariably moved into some points that have been verified by research over the years: this autocratic, condescending style does not allow those who report to this person to contribute at their highest level because of the intimidation and resentment they feel—so much is lost.  

Now for the good news: alphas make truly outstanding leaders, managers and co-workers especially when their intelligence, vision, and drive aren’t overshadowed by their neglect of the feelings of others.  To those alphas who are wrestling with this issue, I would offer a quote I have used for years to open a dialogue with alphas on this topic.  The quote comes from an ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu, who wrote a little book called the Tao.  Lao-tzu’s advice to rising alphas is as cogent today as it was 2,500 years ago--“The more powerful one grows, the greater the need for humility.” 

Why is this true?  Because even the smallest negative gesture or comment from someone in authority can send shock-waves through an organization.  It can make people feel very insecure and unappreciated, which stifles any creativity or initiative they may have had.  Their whole focus becomes mistake-avoidance versus expansive thinking about new approaches and innovation.   Fortunately, the opposite is also true—the smallest acknowledgement or encouragement can motivate or inspire subordinates more than can be imagined, especially if it’s genuinely meant and not overdone.  Think about how wonderful it feels when someone you respect acknowledges something you have done, something to which you have devoted a lot of time and effort.  Just their simple recognition of your effort not only makes you feel good about being a valued member of the team, it impacts the way you then deal with others and on and on.  It’s a chain reaction of positive force that helps propel teams to higher levels. 

This realization alone can work wonders for alphas on their way up and ones who are already in senior leadership positions.

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at