Vivian James Rigney delivers peak performance coaching to successful business leaders, executive boards and senior directors of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. and Europe through the executive coaching firm Inside Us. As a mountaineer, he has just completed summiting the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents — most recently, Mount Everest in 2010. This has been a particularly challenging, humbling and rewarding journey — one that links powerfully with his coaching in facing challenges through personal growth.
“Alpha” personalities rule in business. However, these men and women who dominate and domineer colleagues and subordinates often ignore their own blind spots, which can limit an organization. Alphas are apt to produce sub-par performances for their teams — and all too often take in (and dispense) weaker information and advice.
Alpha leaders are, as a rule, technically brilliant and extremely high performers, who also demand the same from others. They revel in their decision-making role and in being in control. They have strong opinions and are extremely analytical, yet they often obscure these valuable skills with unnecessary pressure to perform at the highest level. One common theme I hear alphas routinely express is a feeling of being “lonely at the top.” They say to themselves, “It all rests on my shoulders, and I have to deliver. ”
Alphas respond to this pressure by creating unnecessary, and predictable, behavior patterns that riles their colleagues, who often adapt to work with it — or, more often, work around it. As a result, performance can suffer. Infamous alphas such as Michael Eisner, former chief executive of Disney, and Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., underscore the alpha blind spots and extreme behavior that prove to be expensive to shareholders.
It’s costly on two fronts:
- It clouds their own ability to accept and manage information and make balanced and effective decisions
- A negative leadership style becomes the standard for the organization, setting precedent for how the business is managed and operated at all levels
In both cases, the shareholder value suffered. In Eisner’s case, his board revolted and he lost his chairmanship and CEO position. His leadership culture was seen as over-controlling, divisive and, ultimately, ineffective in holding and empowering top talent. In Murdoch’s case, the company’s valuation and reputation has been challenged through a very public phone hacking scandal. It is the result of a leadership culture that promoted aggressive aims and remuneration based on blind, individual performance without a collaborative and moral framework.
However, with self-awareness, these alpha behaviors can be channeled for more positive results in the workplace.
Steps that alphas can take to channel positive behavior include:
- Listen and learn. Alphas can be quick to interrupt and dismiss their colleagues’ ideas, which can shut down conversations, prevent valuable information sharing and alienate teams. Alphas need to step back and let others finish speaking first. To show that they have heard what others have said, alphas should first respond by paraphrasing what they have just heard, e.g. “So, you’re saying we should reduce our costs by 10% and invest this in project A.”
- Make the room smarter. Alphas often volunteer their solutions without fully discussing an issue with their team. Alpha leaders have an opportunity to help their team grow smarter if they can take time to ask questions that lead to the solution. For example, “How would we achieve the 10% cost reduction and keep our marketing budget at the same level?” This helps others think through the problem, take accountability for the solution and promote smarter shared thinking.
- We instead of me. Alphas can have a tendency to focus on themselves and less on the issues at hand. Alphas should work to avoid starting a sentence too often with “I” and refer to the group, team or company as a collective (e.g., “we” or “us”). Subtle yet powerful changes in language and tone can have a strong impact on collaboration and build bridges with others in a team.
The leadership trend today is moving away from conflict and trigger-happy alphas and moving toward collaborative alphas, centered on delivering optimum results through smarter leadership. Alphas need to address this challenge to empower and promote a culture of accountability on all levels throughout the organization. Unlike in past decades, if the culture is abusive or stifling, other talented individuals vote with their feet by leaving. For alpha leadership to truly shine, it must meet this challenge and grow accordingly.
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