Alpha Force: How to Be a Strong Leader

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Posted by Francesca DiMeglio on June 16, 2011
Alpha Force: How to Be a Strong Leader
You hear it ad nauseam—B-school professors, management experts, and recruiters singing the dewy praises of the kinder, gentler leaders. They'd like you to believe that the tougher, more assertive, mildly Machiavellian poobah is a relic of a bygone era, an anomaly in today's politically correct, global marketplace. (Remember Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap, the longtime CEO who didn't have a good day if he hadn't fired five people before his mid-morning java?) Today, leaders are supposed to show sympathy toward their employees, lend an ear, make decisions by consensus, and talk through everything with everyone. They are sensitive, caring, and capable of shedding a tear or two.

Get a grip, Dr. Phil. If you want to acquire power, hang on to it, and get results, you have to shed that soft-shelled leadership style for something, well, a little more steel-belted. In other words, you have to get in touch with your inner alpha. According to executive coaches Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, authors of Alpha Male Syndrome, alpha leaders aren't happy unless they call all the shots, make all the important decisions, and take on "levels of responsibility most rational people would find overwhelming." Warm and fuzzy don't come naturally to them.

At crucial moments in corporate life, soft skills are out and shoe leather to butt cheek is in. Says Chuck Martin, CEO of NFI Research in Madbury, New Hampshire, a firm that analyzes business and management trends, "The first three quarters of the year [for a CEO] are about likeability and personality. But when the books are closing on the last quarter, it's about numbers, performance, productivity, results!" Doughboys simply won't cut it in the corner office or survive in the rarefied oxygen at the top of the organization.

You need to take your cues from the old-fashioned managers who ruled with an iron fist, few words, and lots of action. They weren't monsters, but they weren't your best bud either. Think Jack Welch, Rupert Murdoch, or Frances Hesselbein when she headed up the Girl Scouts. These alphas set the terror alert system at code orange, just enough to keep workers motivated without causing cardiovascular tragedy. They never had to yell or scream because people accepted their orders and carried them out. If not, well, all bets would be off.

The hard-edged, unstoppable alpha leader is far from dead. In fact, Ludeman and Erlandson estimate that 70 percent of all senior executives are alpha types. There's a little alpha boss in everyone, and it's your job to set him free. Here's how to let the hairy beast out of the cage.

Stick to Your Guns
Anyone who constantly needs the approval of others will never get ahead in business-or life. You're not cut out to be an alpha star of any company if you ask, "Gee, was I too tough on Myrna in accounting the other day, when I called her out for totally screwing up the numbers?" If you're alpha management material, you don't second guess yourself: You stick to your strong opinions.

Some people are born alpha bosses. But the good news is that even if you aren't, you can develop those supreme traits: confidence, complete faith in your instincts, and the cocky belief that your insights are unique and the most valuable in the room. Success, experience, and logging several hours a week with an executive coach will give you a stronger sense of self and make you a more secure leader. "You have to stand for something," says Kevan Hall, CEO of Global Integration, a consulting firm based in London. "If you don't, you can't lead."

Although both genders have to walk the fine line between beat-your-breast confidence and outright arrogance, the tightrope is more precarious for women. "If a guy is aggressive and stern, he's just a real good manager or salesperson," says Rebecca Boenigk, CEO and chairperson of the board for Neutral Posture, a Bryan, Texas-based company that manufactures ergonomic chairs. "If a woman has those same characteristics, she's called a 'bitch.'" True, but sometimes women have to stop caring-like when companies need a real "bitch" to get the job done.

As full of themselves as alphas are, you still need to keep your eye on the reasons your employees are there in the first place-whether it's personal ambition or material rewards-and give them enough of a reason to remain loyal to you. Truly selfish leaders risk losing their leather chair and cherrywood credenza to nipping-at-their-heels underlings.

Hire Geniuses Who Make You Look Good
Alpha leaders know they are smarter than most people. But they also know that they don't have every answer needed to keep the company ahead of the pack. (Mind you, they'll be damned to admit it to anyone below them on the org chart.) Their solution?

Hire workers who are as smart or, better yet, smarter than they are. You know, prodigies who hit the ground running, require little training, and know their stuff inside out. These Einsteins might intimidate insecure managers, but not those who are already dripping with confidence. On the contrary, alphas are happy to have people who will keep the bar high and help kick workplace butt. You can't have a whole team of Michael Jordans, though. Gather people who will work well together and balance out one another's strengths and weaknesses. It does not mean hiring your friends.

Chuck Martin recently surveyed managers and executives in 47 countries and found that 63 percent of them hire and promote people based on likeability and personality. Big mistake. The team will be judged on bottom-line performance, not on water-cooler shtick or knowing the name of your favorite Cuban cigar.

Be Data Driven
Numbers are an alpha's best friends. Alpha leaders are classically unemotional and analytical in their cognitive style and often rely on reams of data to reach major business decisions. When talking about a new product rollout, you won't hear them throwing around buzzwords like "counterintuitive" sandwiched by a lot of "I feel's." If quantitative analysis isn't your strong suit, take a remedial course or two on the sly. Suit up in the chainmail of numbers and let the binary system do the talking for you.

Hold Feet to the Fire
The world knows what George Steinbrenner does when his Yankees are performing at anything less than world-champion level-adios. Hollywood producer Scott Rudin went through 250 assistants in five years. These leaders are unafraid to challenge people to always improve-and they're unafraid to downsize those who can't hack it.

True alphas take extraordinarily high levels of performance for granted, both in themselves and in others. Alpha CEOs have to answer to the board and shareholders, whose sympathy wears thin when the news is bad. Stating the obvious, Peter Csathy, CEO of the Internet communications company SightSpeed, Inc. says, "The buck stops with the CEO." Translation? Communicate your expectations to employees. Then, set rules and stick to them. If a person or a team consistently comes up short, give 'em the book.

Be the Decider
George W. Bush took plenty of heat for bestowing the moniker "Decider" on himself. But the MBA prez was onto something. Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and author of What Got You Here Won't Get You There, cites his client Ed Zander, the CEO of Motorola. Zander encouraged participation of his employees. But he also reminded them that not every decision is based on a vote. The leader often decides how the company should move forward. He must weigh the options and consider what's best.

Those decisions should be solidly grounded in reality. "Being tough-minded means being rational and analytical, seeing things clearly and in a very balanced way-and being willing to do what has to be done in light of that reality," says B. Joseph White, president of the University of Illinois and author of The Nature of Leadership.

Bully the Bad Guys
Many management experts argue that the recent wave of corporate scandals is partly the result of corporate cultures in which employees were afraid to speak up about evil deeds they witnessed. But you can be a rough-and-tumble alpha boss and still instill a sense of ethics. The first step is to make sure your entire staff knows that you have zero tolerance for lying, cheating, stealing, and any other dishonest high jinks.

Also convey to them that you would appreciate information about anyone or anything that seems ever-so-slightly on the wrong side of decency. Period. Most important, set a standard for your people. "The deepest form of respect that leaders can earn is based on their personal integrity," says White. "Americans are really hungry for people who make commitments carefully and keep them faithfully, and who are truthful."

Grow a Thick Hide
If you aspire to be an alpha boss, you had better be the type that doesn't get steamed by the pressure cooker. You can learn a lot about style and charisma by observing how above-the-fold newsmakers handle life under the microscope. John Elkann, who carried the Fiat torch despite his brother Lapo's near overdose in the apartment of a transsexual prostitute, is a case study in cool. There have been others-from Jack Welch, who still found respect from the media through a scandalous affair with an editor, to Donald Trump, whose bad hair gets as much ink as his bouts with bankruptcy.

Effective leaders put on a good show for the cameras in good times and bad-and take all sorts of criticism without running to their shrink. And the media aren't the only ones who will be hounding you. "You need a pretty thick skin because the analysts will beat the crap out of you as well," says Goldsmith. "You have to be willing to take it."

The moral of the story is that going old school-never letting them see you sweat or cry-isn't out of fashion. After all, alphas are, and always will be, the leaders of the pack.

MBA Jungle, Aug./Sept. 2007

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