Why ‘Alpha Dogs’ Make Poor Leaders In Startups

Why ‘Alpha Dogs’ Make Poor Leaders In Startups

Alpha personality dismantling a colleague The notion of the “alpha” personality, identified long ago by experts in animal behavior, remains a useful term for a human type that is all too familiar: an unusually assertive, aggressive person with a strong need to dominate a group. They’re usually thought of […]

The notion of the “alpha” personality, identified long ago by experts in animal behavior, remains a useful term for a human type that is all too familiar: an unusually assertive, aggressive person with a strong need to dominate a group. They’re usually thought of as male, but women can qualify, too. Some people see the alpha as the paradigm of the good leader: hard-charging, decisive and highly competitive. It has even been estimated that 70% of senior executives are alpha males. Maybe, but alphas—male or female— make less effective entrepreneurial leaders.

Consider intimidation, one of the chief means alphas use to dominate other people. It can take numerous forms (many of which were first anatomized in the #1 New York Times bestseller Winning Through Intimidation back in the 1970s.) They include calculated outbursts of temper (General George S. Patton), taunts (Steve Jobs), the silent treatment (Carly Fiorina), arrogance (Michael Eisner), even throwing things (Barry Diller, Steve Ballmer, Scott Rudin). “At times,” wrote a commentator in 2006 extolling the virtues of what he calls great intimidators, “they will even invade the personal space of the people they want to control.” Who was the author’s exemplar of an intimidator whose physically threatening behavior should be tolerated because he got great business results? Wait for it . . .

Harvey Weinstein.

In large, durable organizations, leaders can often get away with intimidation because success depends on the collective efforts of a great many people, who may produce excellent results despite the leader’s abrasiveness. Startups are far more fragile. Alphas whose go-to leadership style is to strike fear in other people have great difficulty establishing the open cultures required to stimulate out-of-the-box ideas. Such ideas, often put forward by contrarians, are the lifeblood of innovation. Intimidation soon dries up ideas at the source—the people who thought a startup would be a creative paradise, not Parris Island.

Alphas who assume absolute say on what constitutes good and bad ideas often surround themselves with sycophants. This compounds the damage already done by silencing smart people. It puts in place a palace guard whose function is to insulate the leader from diverse views, guaranteeing that he or she will miss out completely on the benefits of diversity for innovation. It also amplifies the tendency for problems to fester and eventually become crises.

Contrast that with the course a wiser Steve Jobs followed when he returned to Apple. He surrounded himself with people he believed were aligned with his vision and gave them wide latitude in running their part of the organization. The problem comes when the alpha doesn’t think anyone is good enough or smart enough or perfect enough to enact their vision, even partly. The startup and small business world is littered with these leaders, who ultimately lead underachieving and stagnant enterprises.

Alphas in both the animal and human kingdoms also tend to hoard assets. In a startup, hoarding assets can take a number of forms: being stingy with stock options, withholding information, spending too much on low priority pet projects at the expense of projects critical to the well-being of the enterprise, or just hogging the spotlight from the subject matter experts who are essential to creating successful products and services. In the resource-constrained environment of a startup, hoarding assets is neither good for the business, which is almost always starved of assets, nor is it good for people, who will be stressed by having to do more with less and resent the leader’s selfishness.

Alphas are also bad listeners—good at giving orders but deaf to others’ concerns. Subordinates often interpret such behavior as lack of empathy, resulting in distrust of the leader and high turnover among employees, who are often few in number and not easily spared.

The good news is that you don’t have to be an alpha, and the alternative to dominance doesn’t have to be submissiveness. Researchers across a number of disciplines devoted to the evolution of human society make a telling distinction between dominance and prestige. Dominance is attained through the behaviors detailed above: intimidation, aggression, arrogance. Prestige is attained through genuine accomplishment, empathy, good interpersonal relationships and openness to ideas. Instead of inspiring fear like the alpha, the leader who achieves prestige wins respect.

In a series of experiments designed to tease out the differences between dominance-oriented leaders and prestige-oriented leaders, researchers at Northwestern University concluded that “dominant leaders are more inclined to selfishly prioritize their own capacity for power over the good of the group.” As a result, they regard talented members of the group as threats and give them little responsibility, while prestige-oriented leaders give talented people more responsibility. Dominance-oriented leaders also undermine alliances between subordinates, inhibit group communication and discourage independent decision making—all in the cause of maintaining maximum power.

Among the advice Machiavelli offers to leaders in The Prince is the oft-quoted admonition that it is better to be feared than to be loved. But the real choice for leaders, especially entrepreneurial leaders, is not between being feared and being loved. It’s a choice between being feared or being respected—dominance or prestige.

Leaders who want to be loved often have trouble making hard decisions. They choose the popular option over the objectively better, but less popular, alternative. They confuse friendship with leadership. They hesitate to give negative feedback, and they sometimes give too much responsibility to people who aren’t ready for it. They may even be over-generous with stock options and other forms of compensation.

Leaders who want to be respected are willing to make hard decisions, like pivoting away from a business model that isn’t working. They win respect by treating others with respect, listening to their ideas and giving them responsibility commensurate with their talent. But respecting others also means honestly and dispassionately telling them the truth about their performance, compensating them accordingly and sometimes parting ways with them.

The bottom line: Don’t intimidate; inspire. Seek prestige, not dominance. And make respect the common currency of the organization, circulating from the top to the bottom and back again in a virtuous circle that increases the likelihood your fledgling business will someday fly.

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