The problem with Masters of the Universe

Alpha Male Syndrome
Curb the Belligerence, Channel the Brilliance

By Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson
Harvard Business School Press, $26.95

If it is tough at the top, then it is hardly surprising that the top jobs are invariably filled by determined, dominating people – the alpha males who are the subject of this new book. Its authors, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, are a husband-and-wife executive coaching team, who have worked with more than
1,500 chief executives and senior executives, including Michael Dell and Kevin Rollins at Dell, and Ebay’s Meg Whitman.

As good coaches, the authors avoid being unfairly judgmental about their subject. They recognise the alpha male’s strengths as well as his weaknesses, and argue that the world needs its alpha leaders right now.

But when those strengths turn into liabilities “alpha male syndrome” has struck: “The stronger the positive qualities, the more likely they are to erupt as negatives.” Alpha males display extreme confidence. They “want excellence, they want it now, and they’re sure they know how to get it”, the authors explain. But, they add, this self-assurance can go too far.

“A great deal of wreckage is caused by boys behaving badly. The healthy ones – well-balanced human beings in full command of their alpha strengths – are natural leaders who are trusted by colleagues, respected by competitors, revered by employees and loved by Wall Street. But other alpha males are risks to their organisations – and sometimes to themselves.”

The authors should know what they are talking about; they are self-declared alphas. Ludeman is a coach with a doctorate in psychology, Erlandson a surgeon turned health guru. One high-tech entrepreneur told them, after he had lost his investors $20m: “Looking back on it, I wasn’t always right, but I was never in doubt.” That is an alpha male talking. But what about alpha females? Do they not get to the top as well?

“Alpha women want to lead, but they don’t necessarily need to rule,” the authors say. They are not as belligerent or as aggressive as their male equivalents. For this reason the authors have chosen to focus on the real problem cases: the men.

How can you tell when alpha male syndrome is afflicting your business? Consider how meetings are run, they suggest. Are they like a particularly unpleasant episode of the competitive television programme The Apprentice? If so, they can become “theatres for the Alpha Male Show”. Often there will be a gap between how an alpha male leader thinks the meeting has gone and the reality.

To complicate the matter further, we need to understand that there are four types of alpha male leader, say the authors: the commander, the visionary, the strategist and the executor.

Commanders are dominant high achievers, de­manding the best from themselves and others. But they may also create fear, suppress disagreements and stifle open communication.

Visionaries are passionate enthusiasts, resilient and indefatigable. However, they can lose sight of the needs of today, dazzled by their own vision of tomorrow.

Strategists are strong decision-makers. They are innovators, finding opportunities buried in piles of data. But they can seem remote and dispassionate, and unable to engage with arguments that are not based on hard facts.

Executors are brilliant deliverers of results. They are strong on detail and superb problem-solvers. But they may prove to be excessively demanding micro­managers, often disappointed with others’ efforts.

Alpha males may end up playing several roles, or “personas” (from the Latin for mask). But with help, harmful personas can be abandoned in favour of the authentic self. “If you and you alone change, other people will also change,” the authors say.

Alpha males are bad for everyone’s health. The old tycoon’s joke: “I don’t get ulcers – I give them”, is just wrong. In fact, alpha males are often adrenalin addicts.

“Those adrenalised bodies in business suits are all dressed up with nowhere to go,” Ludeman and Erlandson say. “Alpha adrenalin junkies not only make themselves sick, they create a toxic environment for everyone else. That’s why organisations dominated by dysfunctional alpha males are likely to have a higher incidence of illness, absenteeism, burnout, turnover and early retirement than businesses run by healthy alphas and non-alphas.”

Ludeman and Erlandson know their subject well. Alpha males “think they’re delivering a wake-up call when in fact they are hurling verbal grenades”. You might admire them but do you want to work with them? And if you are one, how might you moderate your behaviour? Unsurprisingly, for a couple with a coaching business, they feel that coaching is the answer.

You can even complete an online self-assessment questionnaire (soon to be available at Of course, this may lead to further verbal jousting along predictable lines: “My alpha male syndrome is bigger than yours.”

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