Alpha Male Syndrome

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Human history is the story of alphas, those indispensable powerhouses who take charge, conquer new worlds, and move heaven and earth to make things happen. Whether heading a band of warriors, bringing a vital new product to market, guiding a team to glory, or steering a giant conglomerate, alphas are hardwired for achievement and eager to tackle challenges that others find intimidating. Along the way, they inspire awe and admiration—and sometimes fear and trembling. Wherever they are and whatever they do, they stand out from the crowd, usually leaving an indelible impression on those whose lives they touch.

The business world swarms with alpha males. Although there are no hard numbers to support this approximation, we estimate that alphas comprise about 75 percent of top executives. Some are larger-than-life legends who run giant companies; others lead in relative obscurity at the top of little-known firms or small departments. 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 adored by Wall Street. But other alpha males are risks to their organizations—and sometimes to themselves. They get depicted in Dilbert cartoons, not management textbooks. Inspiring resentment instead of respect, and fear instead of trust, they create corporate soap operas that make life miserable for coworkers, create expensive problems for their companies, and derail fast-track careers—including their own. Why? Because their greatest strengths have turned into tragic flaws. Evidence of this alpha ambiguity can be seen on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, on the front pages of newspapers, on CNN and ESPN: alpha males leading the way to amazing accomplishments, earthshaking breakthroughs, and skyrocketing profits—and abusing power, bankrupting companies, and wearing handcuffs.

Like many natural resources, alphas are both indispensable to progress and potentially hazardous. The purpose of this book is to help individuals and organizations harness the immense power of alpha males while minimizing their potential downside.

Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. In English, it has come to denote “the first of anything.” In astronomy, for instance, alpha is the brightest star in a constellation. Animal researchers use the word to signify dominance, applying it to the leader of the pack, who is first in power and importance. That usage has been extended to human beings. 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. Their intense competitive drive keeps them focused on the gold—silver or bronze simply won’t do—and they’re always keeping score. Often charismatic figures who command attention, they exert influence even when they’re low-key and inconspicuous.

Alpha Types

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.

Each Alpha is a unique combination of the four alpha types. The alpha impact style is consistent, but the flavor of each alpha will vary, and with it each alpha’s particular strengths, risks and challenges. 


Alphas are found at every level of the organizational chart. Whether they’re at the forefront of a global corporation or stacking shelves in a retail store, they look for ways to increase their power and influence, dominating meetings, taking the lead on projects, and otherwise making their presence felt. Indeed, many a corporate bigwig started out as an alpha nobody who somehow stood out from the crowd. This does not mean that all good leaders are alphas, or that only alphas have what it takes to lead a group to victory. On the contrary, depending on the nature of the business and the organization, many leadership positions are better filled by men and women who are not alphas, and who achieve their goals with styles that better suit their personalities and circumstances. However, even those executives possess some alpha qualities, or else they simply could not lead, and they certainly could not lead alphas.

Those positive leadership qualities constitute one-half of the alpha syndromes. The other half consists of a package of not-so-positive symptoms that leads to everything from minor business problems to full-fledged organizational catastrophes and personal disasters.

In this age of powerful women in every field of human endeavor, what about alpha females? But a great many women in leadership positions do possess the fundamental traits that define alphas.

The second reason for focusing on alpha males is that a great deal of wreckage is caused by boys behaving badly. In our research, men scored much higher than women on measures of the alpha risk factors.


Few alpha executives are Michael Dell and Kevin Rollins, Dell’s chairman and

CEO, respectively; eBay CEO Meg Whitman; Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino; Vice Admiral Keith Lippert, director of the Defense Logistics Agency; and over 1,000 vice presidents and senior executives at companies like Abbott Labs, Adecco, AMD, Amgen, Bristol-Myers, Coca- Cola, Eaton, the Gap, General Electric, IBM, Intel, KLA-Tencor, Microsoft, and Motorola.


Michael Dell and his executive team since 1995 had remarkable rise of the computer giant, the company’s leaders created a culture that reinforced the best of alpha traits and minimized unhealthy alpha behavior.

Individuals and organizations shall leverage alpha strengths to maximize productivity, teamwork, and overall effectiveness. It also means taking an unflinching look at how those very qualities can mutate into liabilities with the potential to destroy careers and spread like viruses to teams, divisions, and entire companies. They need to identify those deadly alpha risks and stop them in their tracks, just as they’ve helped the hundreds of leaders with whom we’ve worked.

At their best, alphas are leaders in their professional. When they are not at their best—when they are unaware, out of balance, or out of control—they create problems that diminish the value of their productive energy. And when they are at their worst, they go down in flames and drag their coworkers, their families, and their organizations with them. In fact, when alpha males self-destruct, we all suffer, because economic progress and social well-being depend on their strengths. In other words, the alpha upside is limitless, but the downside can be devastating. We call this complex set of characteristics the alpha male syndrome because it fits both the basic definition of the word—a distinctive or characteristic pattern of behavior—and its usual connotation of disease or dysfunction; a complex of symptoms indicating the existence of an undesirable condition or quality.

The range of alpha male traits can be viewed as a continuum ranging from devastating dysfunction on one extreme to gloriously noble leadership on the other. In between are degrees of healthy and unhealthy behavior. On the exceptional end of the spectrum is history’s pantheon of extraordinary alpha males, with distinguished statesmen, titans of industry and philanthropy, creative geniuses, courageous generals, and stalwart heads of families.  

The alpha syndrome continuum


Dysfunctional:: Unhealthy:: Healthy :: Exceptional



In the business world, of course, most alpha males inhabit the middle range. To one degree or another, they fluctuate between healthy and unhealthy alpha tendencies, their magnetic leadership commands respect, but their aggressive tactics create resistance, resentment, and revenge; they are celebrated for their achievements but loathed for the carnage they leave in their wake; people stand in awe of their competence and can-do energy, but they often hate reporting to them or teaming with them. As Thomas A. Stewart, editor of the Harvard Business Review, said after meeting powerhouse CEOs Jack Welch and Andy Grove, “Geez, are they impressive and stimulating! I love to be around them—but am I glad I don’t work for them!”

At the dysfunctional end of the continuum, alpha anger is explosive, alpha competitiveness is ruthless, and alpha aggressiveness and urgency is in the red zone. As you move to the right, negative alpha behavior becomes less destructive, less volatile, and less frequent. Crossing into the healthy part of the spectrum, we can see alpha strengths with fewer downside risks, and alpha males who are trusted and respected instead of feared and loathed. As you approach the exceptional leadership end, alpha strengths become awe-inspiring, and the alphas are revered as inspirational leaders.

The difference between alphas that soar and alphas that sink is most evident in the area of interpersonal relations. Take Michael Dell and Michael Eisner, two classic alpha males. Brilliant, driven, and aggressive, both aimed high at an early age, boldly followed their dreams, and achieved extraordinary success in businesses marked by innovation. In 1984, Dell, then a nineteen-year-old college student, started the company that bears his name, telling his mother he would one day surpass IBM. That same year, Eisner capped a meteoric Hollywood career by being named chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. He quickly propelled Disney from the doldrums of the entertainment industry to the mother of brand names and the darling of Wall Street. Meanwhile, Dell became the youngest CEO ever to crack the Fortune 500. Fast forward to 2005. Dell is named America’s Most Admired Company by Fortune magazine, while the vanquished IBM bows out of the PC business. In the meantime, the sordid details of Eisner’s hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz are dragged into public view, and a board revolt culminates in Eisner’s loss of his chairmanship and resignation as CEO.

The arcs of these larger-than-life characters capture both the extraordinary strengths and the dangerous risks of the alpha male personality. Both men had all it takes to excel in business and leave a lasting mark on society: competence, creativity, astute judgment, abundant energy, daring vision, unflagging self-confidence, and more. But Dell leveraged his alpha assets to become a leader who makes everyone around him better, while alpha blind spots got the better of Eisner’s prodigious ability. In the last years of Eisner’s reign, the atmosphere at Disney was reportedly marked by paranoia, backbiting, and civil war; the culture at Dell remains the most collaborative and collegial we’ve ever observed in a large corporation. By all accounts, the iron-fisted Eisner needed to subordinate the other alphas in his orbit; Dell recruited seasoned executives and eagerly learned from them. Eisner consolidated his power and hogged the credit; Dell, at the height of his success, handed the CEO position to Kevin Rollins and created an unusual power-sharing arrangement. Most of Dell’s talented, enormously wealthy senior executives choose to stay with the company rather than retire or accept one of the many choice job offers that come their way. By contrast, a joke that made the rounds in Hollywood during the Eisner years had homeless people carrying signs reading, “Will work for Disney.”

Employees complain that autocratic alpha managers are abusive and that micromanaging alphas waste their time and create logjams. Coworkers complain about alphas who are demanding, impatient, and unwilling to listen. Peers resent alphas who solo rather than collaborate, and who fight to get their way even when they’re demonstrably wrong. Managers complain about alpha subordinates who are not team players. Senior executives complain that abrasive alpha managers demoralize their troops. And everyone complains that alphas think they’re smarter than everyone else.

Because they’re naturally confident and self-directed, alphas have trouble relating to people who are hard to motivate or have a strong need to be appreciated. Some are more comfortable working with objects, systems, and ideas than with human beings;

Alpha Strengths:

ü  Alphas are aggressive, results-driven achievers who insist on top performance from themselves and others.

ü  They are courageous and self-confident, turned on by bold, innovative ideas and ambitious goals.

ü  They pursue their objectives with tenacity and an urgent sense of mission.

ü  At their best, alpha males inspire awe, and their noble leadership skills are revered by others.

ü  The alpha drive to reach the top can be a benefit to progress. But it can also be a menace to corporate health.

Alpha Risks:

ü  Alpha managers often demoralize their staff with autocratic, abusive, or micromanaging tactics.

ü  Alpha coworkers can be demanding, impatient, and unwilling to listen.

ü  Alpha peers often fight to get their way even when they’re demonstrably wrong.

ü  Alpha subordinates can tend to solo rather than collaborate.

Alpha Fallout in the workplace:

ü  Dysfunctional alphas create resistance, resentment, and revenge.

ü  People admire their competence, but they hate reporting to them or teaming with them.

ü  This dysfunction consumes an enormous amount of employee time and energy.

ü  The cost in absenteeism, turnover, stress-related health problems, and loss of loyalty and motivation.

ü  While all alphas, male or female, share the same basic traits, there are Four Types of Alphas.

ü  Commanders are natural leaders who know how to get people to do things.

ü  Visionaries see the big picture and dream the impossible dream.

ü  Strategists excel in abstract thinking, problem solving and planning.

ü  Executors are dogged implementers who delve into details and drive accountability.

In the animal kingdom, rivals compete for positions in the social hierarchy because ranking high assures access to necessities like food and to privileges such as mating opportunities. It’s not much different in the human jungle, where alpha males strive to achieve positions of prominence. That drive can lead to healthy competition and achievements that benefit all of us. When it’s excessive, however, it wreaks havoc, turning otherwise worthy alphas into bullies who intimidate, browbeat, and humiliate people to get what they want, often rationalizing their behavior as necessary to get others to shape up. Combative and pathologically competitive, unhealthy alpha males need to dominate; as a result, they are constantly on guard and always looking for an advantage.

Three distinct themes are hard-driving competitiveness, interpersonal impatience, and difficulty controlling anger. The trio represents a compelling summary of alphas who create trouble: they see everyone as a rival and every situation as a contest for supremacy, they’re demanding and impatient for results, and they’re veritable powder kegs. Although people in supervisory positions have fewer alpha risks overall, they are somewhat more inclined to display anger, impatience, and competitiveness.

It is unclear whether people with those traits are drawn to supervising others or if becoming a manager brings out these tendencies. Alpha males want excellence, they want it now, and they’re sure they know how to get it. When others fail to measure up, alphas let them know about it. Alpha males who operate with a sense of fairness, who give feedback appropriately and limit their outbursts to genuine crises and major issues, become respected leaders. But those who can’t control their anger can cripple a team or an entire organization.

Mr. Jagadesh Subash is a consummate technically sophisticated senior management professional with experience of 16 years in the information and communication technology industry. Mr. Jagadesh Subash is project management institute certified project management professional. . Mr. Jagadesh Subash has comprehensive industry domain expertise in banking, financial services, manufacturing, aviation, health care-insurance, and contract management domain. Mr. Jagadesh Subash is ISO certified QMS internal auditor. Mr. Jagadesh Subash is a post-graduate in management. Mr.Jagadesh Subash achieved diploma in business management . Mr.Jagadesh Subash has presented three technical papers in technology symposiums. Mr.Jagadesh Subash has 5 years of immense experience for global companies in USA, UK, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Australia. Mr. Jagadesh Subash is involved in executing reflective research into technological, social, and business trends to support strategic thinking and decisions. He also leads the effort focused on one aspect of the connected economy and the applications of complexity science to business.
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