We’ve all heard of the Alpha Male. It may not surprise you to discover that about 70% of senior business executives are alpha males. What may surprise you is what alpha males can can do to your organization, if left to their own devises.
Yes, the lion will one day lay down with the lamb,
but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”
— Woody Allen
This blog portion explores what happens when afflicted top leaders—those lacking emotional maturity and prone to destructive narcissism—use their personal and organizational assets to afflict, rather than serve the interests of the organization. Each affliction is grounded in the dark side of the human condition, and ignited and magnified by the power associated with a leadership role. This unfortunate mix is the fundamental driver of each leadership affliction, and shapes the trajectory of the leader’s “afflicting impact” on the organization.
Given the common source of these leadership afflictions, it is not uncommon for two or more of the six afflictions to overlap in the same leader, and in fact they often do.
For instance, an afflicted leader can, at one and the same time, operate as an alpha-diminisher, or a reality editing-charismatic destructive narcissist, or toxic-woodenheaded leader. I will discuss each affliction individually for the purpose of clarity and analysis.
In social animals, the alpha is the first or dominant animal, typically a male, who achieves his status by superior physical prowess. An alpha marks out his territory and rules it with an iron fist—or horns, teeth and claws. Other males—known as omegas—show deference to the alpha by ritualized gestures like bowing, giving the alpha right of way or the lead place in line, or “stepping down” when the alpha challenges them for food, space or a mate. Whether a wolf, lion, or walrus, the alpha dominates his turf, imposing his will on the pack, pride or colony.
By definition, there can only be one alpha per group.
The human organizational world is full of alphas. In Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson estimate that alpha males represent about seventy percent of all senior business executives. At their best—read emotionally mature constructive narcissists—alphas are hard-charging visionaries who take on significant and challenging endeavors. At their worst—which is most of the time—alphas are afflicted with a competitive and domineering orientation to life and relationships, and correspondingly, are reluctant to share power and resources, and incapable of collaboration.
The Personal Affliction
For the alpha, leadership is all about them—their vision, talent and goals. They pursue their own ambition and gratification with relentless, often ruthless drive. They manifest excessive pride, hubris and vanity, and exhibit a pervasive pattern of overt grandiosity, self-focus, and self-important behavior. Not surprisingly, alphas don’t resonate with and respond to the needs of others.
Alphas are born experts when it comes to power.
They instinctively know how to get it, use it and keep it. Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro offers insight into Lyndon Johnson’s perspective on power. Johnson reflected,
I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.”
Spoken like a true alpha. Johnson, out of emotional necessity lusted for power, and when he got it, he used what power he possessed to keep what he had and to get even more. British author G. K. Chesterton once observed,
To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
Alphas disagree. Johnson was utterly convinced that power was his inherent “right,” and his to use as he pleased.
Not without a touch of irony, the alpha operates with a robust transparency. Their modus operandi is no secret. Dissimulation and deception are not in their repertoire. They feel no need to conceal their motivation and leadership philosophy. They live true to one overriding operating principle: the acquisition, preservation and expansion of personal power.
The Organizational Affliction
Alphas afflict the organization by setting in motion five destructive patterns in organizational life.
First, alphas impose a competition and domination framework on organizational life.
Alphas view work relationships in terms of dominance or subordination, winning or losing. Not surprisingly, alphas are hypersensitive to threats to their authority, and live by the Chinese proverb,
One tiger per hill.”
If the organization is perceived as a mountain range, there is plenty of room for numerous strong leaders. But the alpha doesn’t see it like this. The organization is a single hill and consequently there is room for only one at the top—them of course. From their perspective, the organization is full of competitors for the top of the hill, where all the precious resources reside—attention, admiration, status and most importantly, power. These are exceedingly scarce commodities and must be defended at all costs.
Second, alphas are unwilling to share power and resources.
The alpha employs his or her considerable personal assets—charm, competitive drive, intelligence and access to formal power—to marginalize or banish perceived competitors.
It is my organization,” they reason.
There is room at the top for me and only me. Rivals have three choices. They can fight me—bring it on. They can willingly submit to my leadership—a wise choice. Or they can leave my pack—an even better choice.”
Lyndon Johnson coul
d not stand to have his power and authority challenged. As a boyhood friend recounts, “Johnson had to be the head and he had to make sure everyone knew it.” Another boyhood friend remembered, “He (Johnson) had a baseball, and the rest of us didn’t have one. We were all very poor. None of us had a ball but him. Lyndon wanted to pitch. He wasn’t worth a darn as a pitcher, but if we didn’t let him pitch, he’d take his ball and go home. So, yeah, we’d let him pitch.” If Johnson couldn’t play as THE alpha, he didn’t care to play.