Alpha males – top dogs who rally or ruin teams

Throughout I speak of alpha males and use the masculine term. Alpha females also exist, but are not addressed here.

Eighty percent of people who voluntarily resign from their jobs cite their manager as one of the main reasons for doing so. They move on in search of a more attractive opportunity or better working environment. Professional cricketers are selected into their position and thus are not so lucky if they have a lousy ‘boss’, they can’t leave and go to another team. Conversely, most people who are happy in their team or workplace are likely to have a coach, captain or boss they respect and who is a likeable person. After all, the leader sets the tone for most performance environments.

In professional sport and big business, it is most likely that a successful leader will be a combination of dynamic, driven, strategically minded, confident, intelligent, opinionated, results oriented and/or dominant. These are the proverbial ‘alpha males’.

I have worked with and coached a fair amount of them. The reason I write this blog series is to share some of the information that would have made my life a heck of a lot easier had I known it earlier.

Not all alpha males are the same – it is too general a term to define this class of animal. South African cricketers would have quite different experiences of Kepler Wessels and Graeme Smith, as would Indian cricketers have experienced Greg Chappell and Gary Kirsten quite differently. Some make the working environment enjoyable and successful, some create success, are nice to learn from but are not nice to work with, and others are downright awful and soul destroying to be around. It’s the last category that has led to the lowest points of my working life, mainly because I had no idea what I was dealing with, nor how to deal with them.

When an alpha male walks into a room, he is noticed, he has presence. When in a group, he will naturally lead and others will willingly follow. Characteristic of them is that they believe deeply in themselves and thus are secure, self-confident and have strong opinions. They are highly intelligent and are able see the big picture, are able to find solutions and can see further into the future than most. They take action and make the difficult decisions. They have high expectations of themselves and of others. They motivate people to produce results, and lead from the front. They are good communicators who speak slowly and clearly, and have a good sense of humour. The have high energy levels, are hugely productive and are not scared to work long hours. They have sound morals and ethics, and live a principled life. They revel under pressure with others looking to them for leadership in times of chaos and difficulty. Graeme Smith has produced more match-winning performances in the 4th innings of test matches than any other, at times when batting is most difficult and his team needed him most. MS Dhoni was in poor form leading up to the World Cup final in India in 2011. With India on 114 for 3 and needing 275 to win the final, he moved himself ahead of in-form Yuvraj Singh. He walked out to bat taking the responsibility onto his shoulders, and returned from the crease with 91 not out and the World Cup Trophy.

The above are some of the healthy characteristic of alpha-males. The more an alpha-male exhibits these qualities, the more he will be respected and followed, the healthier the team environment will be, and the more they are likely to produce sustainable results. There is little surprise that coaches like Gary Kirsten, Andy Flower, Jake White, and Clive Woodward are respected by players, and that they lead happy teams that have enjoyed success.

This type of leader will not produce employees who are part of the 80% who leave a job because of their boss. Professional cricketers can count themselves lucky if they have such an alpha male coach or captain.

Like heads and tails on a coin, there is another side to alpha males. Too much self-confidence can flip over into arrogance, creating closed-minded know-it-alls who talk but do not listen. They may rarely admit being wrong and will cut down anyone who disagrees with them. I was recently invited to meet with a CEO of an Australian company who asked me to present some ideas that could be employed in his company. All I succeeded in doing was listening to him for an hour.

The alpha male’s high expectations can lead to him being constantly dissatisfied if things aren’t perfect – which they seldom are. He will constantly find flaws in others and will harp on the mistakes they make. There are sport coaches who regularly rant and rave after their team has delivered a performance that is below the coach’s expectation – even though in any given season this will naturally happen. They harp on the error each time a mistake is made, whether it’s a catch dropped, a below-par bowling spell or dismissal through a poor shot. Some captains openly berate their player’s errors on the field of play, whilst managing to overlook their own errors.

Unhealthy alpha males are overly critical and do not appreciate people or a job well done. Their habit of highlighting the negative and overlooking the positive is de-motivating. Being honest and somewhat embarrassed to admit it, I am guilty of having unrealistically high expectations of my wife, and find myself pointing out her flaws and errors more than appreciating what she does well. Sometimes I wish she would simply change her ways to be more perfect, rather than have me follow her requests to stop judging her and to start being more appreciative. I’m that unhealthy alpha male (read jerk) when I act like this with my wife – who is already a remarkable woman.

Their desire to produce results makes them impatient and demanding. Getting the job done right is also more important than relationships, as they readily explode at someone who is a bit late with a report, who doesn’t follow their often-rushed and incomplete instructions, or who does not bowl to the field that is set for them. Someone’s child being sick or grandmother dying is no reason not to get the job done on time. Many a young fast bowler is bowled into the ground for the sake of a trophy and the coach looking good, even though it puts the bowler at risk of suffering a stress fracture and missing six months of cricket. This happens too often.

Alpha males are often (outwardly) unemotional and are highly judgmental of others who show emotions. A cricketer who cries may be labeled as being weak or soft. Yet, when he is angry, the Alpha male may well have outbursts of anger, but he does not see these as emotional outbursts.

Their humour tends towards sarcasm and is often at the expense of others. An unhealthy alpha will convince himself that it is okay to compromise on morals and ethics if it will help him achieve his own selfish needs.

Younger and older alpha males may act differently. A younger (teenage) male will often be good looking, physically strong, and will look to dominate others through their physicality – conquering males by intimidation, fighting or sporting dominance, and conquering females through sexual conquests, as they ‘hunt’ them in night clubs and pubs. Older alphas will evolve to dominate others psychologically and emotionally, exercising power over others in their professional capacity, hiring, firing and directing them in business or sport environments. Older alpha males will still dominate females sexually, just as alpha females may use sex to dominate.

Not all alpha males or strongly authoritarian leaders are the same. I suggest three types, healthy, unhealthy and pathologically ill ones.

Healthy alpha males

Healthy alpha males will naturally exhibit positive characteristics most of the time, and will succumb far less often to the negative ones. I suggest that they can be best recognized by their impact on others around them, rather than by the traditional measure of the results they produce. A healthy alpha male will be surrounded by subordinates and team members who are mostly happy, who respect and like him, and who warm to him most of the time. Their team will probably produce better results than more skilled teams, because players will have a sense of playing for something greater than just themselves. There will be a sense of unity and loyalty towards the team or company.

During the 2012 New Year’s test against Sri Lanka, Jacques Kallis was not out on 183 at the tea interval. When asked if the team should declare at tea or after he reached 200, he answered, “Don’t consider my score, make whatever decision is best for the team.”

More recently, in his debut test match for South Africa vs Australia in Adelaide, Faf du Plessis was facing a seemingly impossible task of saving the game for his country. He needed to bat for nearly 8 hours and see out 125 overs to succeed. With an attacking field in place and his score on 98, he proceeded to defend 24 consecutive deliveries without attempting to score. The team’s need to play out time prevailed over his selfish needs to score a century on debut. Thankfully he succeeded 25 deliveries later.

A healthy alpha leader will most likely place high demands on others, but they will experience it as being fair, and might even feel cared for. Graeme Smith is an alpha male. He asks a lot of his players, and does not accept mediocrity. He is a strong leader with good presence, people listen when he talks. He also listens to others, he is sensitive to what they may be going through, he asks how people are doing, and waits for the answer. He is both respected and well liked, and leads a happy team. When a sports team has a healthy alpha male leader, other males in the team will almost always take the same lead, and themselves adopt more of the healthy characteristics.

Healthy alphas treat women with respect and in turn forge healthy relationships with them. They are comfortable in woman’s company, find it easy to make conversation and are comfortable with silence. He does not need to impress.

Unhealthy alpha males

These animals display more of the negative tendencies than positive ones. The more regularly they display them, the less healthy their leadership will be. And the people who suffer most are those around him. Particularly in the corporate environment, they may well deliver good financial results because they are intelligent, hard-working, strategic thinkers, excellent implementers and hard disciplinarians. But they achieve these results at the expense of others, often using them as ‘resources’ that are there to achieve their own selfish or egotistical needs. Sports teams have them as coaches, captains and sometimes even senior players. They use their position to serve their own needs and aspirations, to appear better or stronger than others in the team, to increase their public popularity and grow their income. Their position of authority allows them to use disciplinary measures as the stick to control others.

The environment under this leader is likely to be one where people will be focused on looking after themselves, as they go into survival mode, whilst seeking to use the situation for their own gain or development. People may still work hard, not for the team cause, but their own. In cricket, one would find a culture of players selfishly looking after their own performance, looking for a ‘not out’ rather than sacrifice their wicket for the team. Bowlers will bowl defensively to more defensive fields to look after their figures. There will be no backing a teammate who is struggling. (These things happen in some healthy teams, but not as a permanent feature.) In business, some employees will do just enough to be seen to be doing their job, working at maybe 50% of their capability, while other more ambitious employees will use the time to learn as much as they can, accumulate as many contacts as possible, whilst getting their CV’s out there. Again, there will be little loyalty towards the leader or the organization. Thing is, it is unlikely that this leader will care much or be too aware of other peoples experience of him. He will have all the focus on himself and on the things that matter to him, which is more about results and bottom line than people.

A sports team with an unhealthy alpha male leader invites other alpha males in the team to also be unhealthy. A toxic environment ensues, along with infighting and rivalry between alpha males, there will be a jostling for power, disciplinary problems and results will be below the team potential. Some professional rugby teams, soccer teams and the odd cricket team currently fall into this category.

A genuine alpha male is secure and does not need to prove anything to anyone. In some cases an unhealthy alpha male is fact not a genuine alpha, but a wannabee alpha whose posturing, bullying and generally unhealthy ego-driven behaviour is used as the mask for his personal insecurity.

Alpha males are not boxed into one way of being; they do not necessarily possess all the above mentioned characteristics, and they have the ability to shift along the continuum from healthy to unhealthy. With coaching, awareness and/or a good reason and willingness to change, an unhealthy alpha male can shift towards operating in a healthier manner. Similarly a healthy alpha male who is under threat, develops greed or a hunger for power can shift towards operating in a more unhealthy fashion.

One similarity is that both healthy and unhealthy alphas have a strong focus on themselves. The fundamental difference I believe is in their wiring around compassion and empathy, and similar ‘other-person oriented’ traits. Graeme Smith is sensitive towards others and has compassion. He is concerned about the wellbeing of others. These characteristics will prevent him from acting out as an unhealthy alpha and from having a negative impact on a team and its members.

An unhealthy alpha may be a womanizer, chasing them for the sake of conquering, whilst having a lack of respect for them. He will often try to impress them through his behaviour, stories or buying things for them. He will often need to tell others of his sexual exploits.

Pathologically ill alpha males

Often appearing more innocent and endearing than the average alpha male, these are entirely different animals, far more callous and sinister. They are intelligent, charming, inspiring and highly regarded, from a distance. They are highly successful, occupying senior positions of power and influence in politics, business and sport, from where they manipulatively, deceitfully, cunningly and remorselessly destroy people, organizations and even societies. In high-level politics and big business possibly more than one in 20 fall into this category. Sport has them too.

Meet the ‘corporate’ psychopath. Called this because they have recently been exposed in the business environment. Soon we may read about political and sport psychopaths.

Most do not recognise them, at least not until they have been chewed up, spat out and walked all over by these angelic looking demons. I wish I had known about them before I started working with them, it would have saved me much angst, frustration, personal failure and ill-health.

In the next blog I will expose this rather unsavory individual.

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