The Alpha Male Syndrome



Kate Ludeman , PhD & Eddie Erlandson , MD

Worth Ethic Corporation


The business world is a natural habitat of alpha males. Whether they're larger-than-life legends who run giant companies or the heads of little-known firms and small departments, these aggressive powerhouses are hardwired for achievement and eager to tackle challenges that others find intimidating. Those alphas who are balanced human beings in full command of their strengths are esteemed by colleagues, revered by employees, and adored by Wall Street. But other alpha males are organizational risks, not assets. They inspire fear and resentment rather than trust and respect, often causing expensive problems for their companies. Indeed, the very term "alpha male" has become a pejorative in America , thanks to the many instances when their abuses have created corporate soap operas and dramatic news stories. 


Make no mistake: the world needs alpha males. When used appropriately, their courage, confidence, tireless energy, and fighting spirit make them natural leaders in competitive situations. The trouble comes when they use their exceptional strengths inappropriately or carry them to such extremes that they turn into tragic flaws: their confidence becomes arrogance, their toughness becomes belligerence, and their competitiveness becomes a fight to the death in which even teammates are seen as rivals that have to be vanquished.  Unfortunately for many alpha males, what works in a jungle or on a battlefield - or during a genuine crisis - is not always appropriate in today's business environment.  Nowadays, leaders are expected to do more than command and control; they're called upon to motivate, inspire, teach, communicate, and model integrity and personal growth. Such skills do not come naturally to most alpha males, and those who fail to develop them are increasingly out of place.


Over the course of our careers, we have coached hundreds of prominent alpha males. We have written about them extensively and have conducted a rigorous study of their assets and liabilities. The main thrust of our consulting work - and of this article - is to help individuals and organizations harness the immense power of alpha males while minimizing their potential downside. As you'll see, doing that requires more than simply building on the alpha's formidable strengths. It also means taking an unflinching look at how their assets can mutate into liabilities, with the potential to destroy careers and spread like viruses to teams, divisions, and entire companies.




If you run a team or an organization inhabited by alpha males, your challenge is to optimize their enormous productive capacity while at the same time get the upper hand on their risk factors before they create problems. You need to harness their competitive drive while keeping them from turning teamwork into guerrilla warfare and colleagues into stage hands for their one-man show. And you need to take full advantage of their leadership gifts while protecting employees from their potential abuses. The first step is to understand what we call the alpha male syndrome.


The first letter of the Greek alphabet, alpha has come to denote "the first of anything." Animal researchers use the word to signify dominance, applying it to the leader of the pack, who is first in power and importance. Among humans, an alpha is defined as "a person tending to assume a dominant role in social or professional situations, or thought to possess the qualities and confidence for leadership." As we use the term in our work, alpha signifies a powerful, authoritative personality type with a specific set of traits. Alphas are aggressive, results-driven achievers who insist on top performance from themselves and others. Courageous and self-confident, they are turned on by bold, innovative ideas and ambitious goals, and they pursue their objectives with tenacity and an urgent sense of mission. At their best, alpha males inspire awe, and their noble leadership skills are revered by others.  


Those positive traits constitute one half of the alpha male syndrome. The negative half consists of behaviors that lead to everything from minor business problems to full-fledged organizational catastrophes and personal disasters. Dysfunctional alphas create resistance, resentment, and revenge. People admire their competence, but they hate reporting to them or teaming with them. When we're invited into a company as consultants, most of the complaints we hear are about alpha males who are driving people crazy. We're told about alpha managers who demoralize their staff with autocratic, abusive, or micromanaging tactics; about alpha coworkers who are demanding, impatient, and unwilling to listen; about alpha peers who fight to get their way even when they're demonstrably wrong; about alpha subordinates who solo rather than collaborate. The gripes we hear have usually been part of the corporate milieu for some time, consuming far too much employee time and energy. The cost in absenteeism, turnover, stress-related health problems, and the loss of loyalty and motivation is enormous. 


Most alpha males, of course, are in between those extremes, fluctuating between a terrific upside and a potentially devastating downside. The job of those who coach and manage these alphas is to help them move further to the positive end of the continuum.


Why alpha males? What about alpha females? Even though a great many women in leadership positions possess the same fundamental traits, alpha males receive the bulk of attention for two primary reasons. First, men are more likely than women to have alpha characteristics, and the executive ranks contain many more alpha males than alpha females. Second, a great deal of wreckage is caused by boys behaving badly. While alphas of both sexes are aggressive, competitive, and prone to anger, the male of the species is far likely to become ruthless, intimidating, and belligerent. These common observations were borne out in our research: men scored much higher than women on virtually all measures of alpha risk factors (see the sidebar, The Hard Data on Alphas).


The Hard Data on Alphas

The instrument we use to develop alpha profiles of individuals was also used to elicit basic data. In a series of three validation phases, we studied 1,507 subjects, all of whom worked full time in the business world, many in high-ranking leadership positions, 63.79% were male, their average age was 41.2, and they hailed from 106 nations and worked in hundreds of different industries.

Overall, our data show that alpha traits correlate with being male, with increasing levels of education, with low anxiety, with supervisory positions, and with type A personality traits. The propensity for having alpha risks relates to being male, to higher levels of stress and tension, and to a lack of self-reflection. In other words, the prototypical alpha is a well-educated man with managerial experience and the hard-driving, urgent intensity of a type A. The most troublesome alphas are men who are under a high degree of stress and are not inclined to introspection. High alpha scores correlate strongly with anger, impatience and competitiveness, and the scores for anger and impatience are significantly higher in men than in women.

One of the most significant findings corroborates something we observed repeatedly in our work in organizations: alpha risks are closely related to alpha strengths. Although some subjects scored high on one scale and not on the other, in general the greater the strengths, the greater the risks.



In sum, when properly channeled and controlled, the alpha male drive to reach the top is a boon to progress, but when the ethic of "do what it takes to get results" is taken to extremes; it becomes a menace to both personal careers and corporate health. Exactly how it can is seen in Table 1, which lists common alpha traits, and the value and risk associated with each one.


The Alpha Syndrome: When Strengths Become Liabilities 

Table 1-1
The Alpha Syndrome: When Strengths Become Liabilities

Alpha Attribute

Value to Organization

Risk to Organization

Dominant, confident, takes charge

Decisive, courageous leader; gets people to take action and move forward

Doesn't develop strong leaders; intimidating; creates fear; stifles disagreement

Charismatic, magnetic leader who leads the way

Brings out the best in others; gets people to do more than they thought was possible

Manipulates to get his way, uses charm to lure people down his path

Aggressive, competitive

Determined to win; turns others into winners

Competes with peers; alienates colleagues; reluctant to give others credit

High achiever with a strong sense of mission

Action-oriented, produces results, energizes teams to reach impossible goals

Takes high levels of performance for granted; expects the impossible and fails to acknowledge what's required to achieve it

Bold, creative, innovative thinker

Dreams up ingenious ideas, solves intractable problems, sees further than others

Arrogant, stubborn, overly opinionated; imposes own views; closed to others' thinking

Persistent, tenacious, determined, steadfast

Has courage of convictions; always moves forward; willing to take unpopular stand to get results

Drives self and others to exhaustion; urgent; impatient; thinks rules don't apply to him

Strong appetite for newness and change

Values speed, drives people and organizations toward needed change and rapid growth

Overzealous; undervalues organizational alignment; launches into action before gathering support from others

Farsighted; sees what's possible

Recognizes gap between today's reality and tomorrow's potential

So focused on future that present and near term are neglected; loses sight of business viability

Sees what's missing

Proactively spots problems, adjusts, corrects, prevents things from getting worse

Can be critical, demeaning; fails to appreciate others' contributions; people feel demoralized




All alpha males are aggressive, competitive, and driven to achieve. They think big, aim high, and attack their goals with courage, confidence, and tenacity. But each of the four types expresses these common qualities in different ways. Think of them as spices that add flavor to the basic alpha male recipe. Understanding their nuances will give you deeper insight into yourself and the alpha males around you, enabling you to pinpoint strengths you can build upon and risks you need to address. With this more granulated view, you can home in on a specific course of action, just as a doctor can devise a better treatment plan if she knows the exact type of infection a patient has rather than only the broad category.


Here is a brief summary of each type's primary behavior traits:

  • Commanders: Intense, magnetic leaders who set the tone, mobilize the troops and energize action with authoritative strength and passionate motivation without necessarily digging into the details.

  • Visionaries: Curious, expansive, intuitive, proactive and future-oriented, they see possibilities and opportunities that others sometimes dismiss as impractical or unlikely and inspire others with their vision.

  • Strategists: Methodical, systematic, often brilliant thinkers who are oriented toward data and facts, they have excellent analytic judgment and a sharp eye for patterns and problems.

  • Executors: Tireless, goal-oriented doers who push plans forward with an eye for detail, relentless discipline and keen oversight, surmounting all obstacles and holding everyone accountable for their commitments.

You might say that all human beings can fit into those four categories, not just alpha males. To some extent that is true, but our concern is with alphas, and alphas bring to the four types an overlay of aggressive intensity, energetic persistence, and competitive drive that sets them apart from the rest of humanity. It is that distinctive collection of traits that led us to use the term alpha male syndrome.


It's important to note that the types are not mutually exclusive. While virtually every alpha has one dominant type PG, he or she will typically have one or two secondary patterns as well. So, for example, a visionary alpha might also have strong strategist tendencies, while another visionary might have executor traits as a secondary characteristic. The data from our Alpha Assessment study support the observation that alphas display the qualities of one primary type, but also possess traits of the other three in varying degrees. Although each type is statistically unique, there is an approximate 20 percent correlation between them.


To cite ourselves as examples, we are both visionary alphas, but Eddie has strong secondary arms as both a commander and a strategist, while Kate has a lot of executor traits. We both have big, expansive ideas, but Kate will offer practical comments about implementation challenges to justify her point of view, and she will persist until she can bring closure to the discussion. When Eddie wants to get his way, he first uses charm and humor to inspire support. Before bringing out the data, he appeals to the emotions by describing the impact his idea will have on other people.


In our experience, the most effective alpha leaders are those who blend the functional elements of more than one type - or are smart enough to surround themselves with associates who add the strengths of other types to the mix. For example, here's how the four types might look at a particular task:


  • Commander: This job needs someone to take charge and lead the way.
  • Visionary: I see a great possibility waiting to be unveiled and seized.
  • Strategist: The potential opportunities and risks need to be analyzed and solved.
  • Executor: Getting this done requires structure and control.

You can see where all four styles have value, and that, depending on the circumstances, different combinations and proportions would be ideal.




As we've suggested earlier, the challenge for anyone coaching alpha males, whether senior executives or external consultants, is to maximize their strengths and shore up their weaknesses. We have developed a battery of effective procedures for doing exactly that. The first step is to make alpha males aware of the downside risks in their own behavior. 


The Intention-Impact Gap


When told that their intimidating style can deplete morale and impair teamwork, alpha males typically become defensive. "I've been successful just the way I am," they say. "You're not going to neuter me now." No one wants to neuter them, of course; just scrape away the rough edges that create problems and just might derail their own ambitions. They don't realize that the skills that got them to the playoffs are not enough to take them to the championship.


We illustrate the stark reality of the situation with what we call the awareness trajectory. We have alpha clients enumerate their intentions in several categories, such as business outcomes, leadership results, and key relationships. We then compare their intentions to their actual impact and examine the reasons for the gap between expectations and results. Typically, high-ranking alpha males have more than enough knowledge, skill, and drive to be effective leaders. The wild card is their self-awareness (vertical axis) and their awareness of how they influence their peers, teams, and other key players (horizontal axis).


The Awareness Trajectory





Just as smoking constricts the arteries and erupts in any number of symptoms, dysfunctional alpha males can constrict the flow of energy, information, and creativity in an organization, causing damage that shows up both locally and system-wide. One common pattern is a deadly trap we call the alpha triangle. We find the model very helpful in understanding the consequences of alpha behavior patterns - and in illustrating those consequences to the alphas themselves.


Once an alpha male recognizes the gap between his intentions and his actual impact, he becomes more amenable to feedback. We provide this with 360's based on in-depth interviews. We provide both verbatim passages from the interviews and color-coded bar graphs depicting how the client was rated in different areas of competency. These reports carry tremendous weight with alpha males, because they are typically oriented to hard data. The next step is also a powerful motivator: we facilitate meetings between the client and those who are struggling to work with him.


Because they think in bottom-line terms, alpha males become motivated to change only when they see that doing so will lead to greater influence and more sustainable business results. Once they see that their former behavior has a downside, they become willing to work on what they might otherwise demean as "soft" or counterproductive: developing more effective ways to communicate and collaborate with others. Alpha males who turn their potent intelligence, energy, and determination inward are capable of remarkable transformation.


The Alpha Triangle


The triangle consists of three characters: villain, victim, and hero. Each one reinforces the other two: villains blame, victims whine, heroes fix. Each lays claim to a specific payoff: villains get power, victims get sympathy, and heroes get appreciation. As villains, alpha males are right out of central casting. Their noble intention is to get things done, but when they pursue that goal with blunt instruments the people they think they're helping actually feel like victims - misunderstood, mistreated, and maybe even abused. To complete the triangle, heroes step in to clean up the mess.


Alpha males typically vacillate between villain and victim. They bully people to the brink of tears and then feel sorry for themselves for having to deal with such incompetents. Sometimes they also wear the hero costume, stepping courageously forth to put out the fire they started.


Each of the three roles perpetuates the alpha triangle: villains like to feel in control, victims need to feel wounded, and heroes love to feel honorable. And, because each player has a stake in keeping the triangle intact, the pattern is hard to break. As the various triangles within an organization become entrenched, the symptoms escalate from occasional traumas and minor annoyances to chronic disorders and outright catastrophes. The key is to replace dysfunctional alpha male behavior with new, healthy habits. Once that shift takes place, everyone else in the triangle drama automatically adjusts. It's simple geometry: remove any of its three sides, and a triangle will collapse. See Figure 2.



The Alpha Triangle






Here's an example: Walt was a hard-driving alpha executive with a red hot temper. What he thought was constructive feedback his victims saw as a weapon of mass destruction. His staff cowered in fear, his peers tuned him out, and everyone in the company tiptoed around him. Periodically, Walt would take his complaints to the CEO, an inspiring alpha who loved the role of hero. He would soothe the wounded victims and negotiate their differences with Walt, and eventually sanity and calmness were restored. On the surface, his approach might seem sensible. But the pattern kept on repeating because Walt had no incentive to change. When he saw the results of the 360º interviews we conducted, Walt snapped out of it. The syndrome was clearly spelled out by his colleagues, who said things like "Walt is brilliant, but he's so abrasive and demeaning that he can't get alignment."


For his part, the CEO came to see his own role in perpetuating the triangle. He immediately stopped acting like a hero and more like a leader, telling Walt that there would be consequences if he didn't change his behavior. 


With his motivation reinforced by the CEO, Walt rose to the occasion. Acknowledging that his volatility was impeding results, he requested our help and set forth to develop more constructive influence skills. The alpha triangle soon collapsed, and the performance of the entire group ratcheted up a notch.


Stop Defending and Start Learning


Another way to break the triangle is to help alpha males respond less defensively to disagreement and critical feedback. Alphas tend to offer feedback in a coercive or belligerent manner, instantly putting the recipient into the victim role. The victim defends himself or herself either passively, with nervous explanations and timid justifications, or aggressively, by counterattacking or shifting the blame.


The same thing happens with disagreement. Because they think they have all the answers, alpha males have a strong drive to explain, justify and convince. If others don't get it, they state their case another way, louder and more forcefully. Discussion becomes debate, debate becomes argument, and argument becomes hostility. If the opponent is also an alpha, the result is war, even at the expense of mutual interests. Someone who's not an alpha is not likely to fight back, but rather slink away in self-defense, pretending to get the point. Disappearing with them, however, are all the useful facts and important viewpoints they would otherwise contribute. Also gone is the alpha male's opportunity to garner support, help people learn, and bolster incentive. Where defensiveness prevails, no one receives constructive feedback, and therefore no one can improve. 


Figure 3 is a powerful tool for monitoring defensiveness. The higher the score on the (+) scale, the lower the defensiveness and the greater the openness to learning. A high score on the (-) scale indicates the opposite: a lot of defensiveness and a mind closed to learning.


You can use the scale to understand a particular alpha male's escalation pattern, as well as your own and that of others who might be contributing to the problem. This can be a valuable step in formulating better ways of doing things in the future. The basic task is to shift each person's behavior from the high scores on the minus side to the high scores on the positive side. Once one person shifts, you'll quickly see others move in the same direction. See Figure 3.



Shifting from Defensiveness to Learning




Encouraging Vulnerability


As superheroes in their own minds, alpha males want to appear confident and strong, even invincible. They fear that if they don't come across as titans their credibility will be undermined and opponents will pounce like sharks that smell blood. But, as paradoxical as it may seem, when strong, successful leaders are candid about their human frailties, they're actually seen as more self-confident and courageous. They actually command more respect than those who strut around with their chests puffed up, afraid to show a chink in their armor. That's why we strongly encourage alpha males to be fully transparent about what they learn about themselves and publicly affirm their ongoing commitment to personal growth.


The truth is, everyone already knows the alpha male is an imperfect human being. Trying to maintain an image of perfection just keeps them at a distance from colleagues and feeds into their image as arrogant and self-important. On the other hand, when they openly expose their personal foibles, they show everyone another side of themselves - one that is self-aware, humble, and eager to improve. Such candor builds trust, respect, and loyalty, making their working relationships far more productive and raising their leadership capacity to new levels.


In order to help them see just how open or self-protective they are, we have alpha males respond "yes" or "no" to the following questions:

  • When people ask me something, I have trouble saying, "I don't know."

  • I find ways to let people know I'm smarter than they are.

  • I often exaggerate the extent of my experience.

  • I try to cover up my problems until I find a way to solve them.

  • I deflect attention from anything that makes me look bad.

  • I sometimes pretend to understand things when I'm actually confused. 

  • I try to project an image of decisiveness even when I'm not sure what to do.

Once they recognize that attempting to project a Superman image actually works like kryptonite in a modern workplace, weakening their ability to lead effectively, alpha males can be persuaded to let down their guard and be real. This is not psychobabble; it's a nuts-and-bolts, bottom-line concern. In our experience, companies that place a premium on open­ness and self-awareness are more creative, more energetic, and more profitable. If the alpha doubts that, have him try this mental experiment. Ask him to imagine a scenario in which his boss has problems with how the alpha has executed certain directives, which he, the alpha, considered too vague to follow. Then have him imagine the boss storming into his office, slamming the door, and letting loose a barrage of demeaning remarks. Finally, have him imagine instead that the boss calmly says, "I'm aware that I'm not doing a very good job communicating what I'm looking for. I have a sense of how it should be done, and I really want you to execute it, but you obviously can't read my mind. So let's try to tease it out together." Now ask the alpha which approach would make him bust his butt to get the job done. Which manager would earn his loyalty and trust?


That's the kind of reflective, self-aware leader we encourage alpha males to become themselves. When they make that shift, they are well positioned to overcome the domineering, combative behavior that all too often pollutes the work environment and sabotages their best intentions. At that point they are positioned to harness their magnificent alpha power, energy, and competitive drive for the benefit of their careers and their organizations.




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