Taming alpha-male personalities through coaching

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 Dec 2010

01 Dec 2010 • by Changeboard Team

What's an alpha male?

To zoologists, the alpha is the dominant animal in a group. Organisations have appropriated the terminology and alpha males often fill management positions, becoming more frequent at more senior levels. Clever and confident, the alpha male is not only keen to take responsibility, he believes that no-one else is quite up to being in charge. He can perform very effectively and expects the highest standards of himself and others. Alpha males get things done.

In the animal kingdom, the alpha may be female. Alpha females are also found in organisations, particularly where the culture prizes alpha traits, but they are a small minority. In this article, it's assumed that alphas are male. 

Different personalities of the alpha male

Despite these impressive traits, the term alpha male often implies criticism; when taken too far his characteristics can result in a leader who is domineering, demanding and critical. What to the alpha is 'frank and open' is viewed as threatening by those around him.

While this may be tolerated at lower levels of an organisation, as the alpha male rises through the hierarchy, his interpersonal skills become increasingly important. To retain the positive impact of Dr Jekyll, the organisation must tame Mr Hyde.

How can coaching help alpha males?

Coaching effectively supports the alpha male’s development of a more rounded leadership style, but presents stiff challenges.Alphas appreciate the investment in them, even though they may not see any issues to address. Many coaches believe that hard data is the best way to get the message across and use psychometric tests and 360° feedback. However, the true alpha male is so self-confident that he can simultaneously agree with the positive assessments whilst finding reasons to ignore the negatives. 

The second major challenge for the coach is being on the receiving end of the alpha’s difficult behaviour; he may attempt to browbeat or ignore the coach, placing little value on his or her input and refusing to engage.  ?

The successful coach for alpha males withstands these challenges. He or she may well be a 'reformed' alpha with empathy supported by first hand knowledge. The coach is likely to have lots of experience of working in high alpha environments with overbearing and blinkered high performers.

How to coach alphas

Initially, the most important part of the coaching is to gain credibility. It's easy for the coach inadvertently to become part of the organisational system which the alpha has created, by being soft, passive or deferential. Such a coach will quickly be regarded as a subordinate by the alpha male, with the coaching process accorded similarly low status. Instead the coach needs to display confidence in the face of the alpha’s approach, mirroring his direct communication style and so gaining respect.

One way of capturing the alpha male’s attention is by demonstrating intellectual capability and in this the coach’s standard tools can be effective. Reflecting what the alpha has told the coach about a complex situation in a cogent, accurate and brief summary does more to convince the alpha male of the coach’s ability than any amount of qualifications and experience – the alpha values results he can see.

How to coach alphas

Even if the alpha does respect the coach, he's likely to suggest that he has always been this way, his style has worked so far and that he cannot change. This dooms the coaching and the coach needs to challenge it straight away. The primacy of high performance as a driver for the alpha male makes it a good route for engagement. Exploring the alpha’s work will reveal areas where performance can be improved. The typical alpha male will not recognise that his own shortcomings contribute to this deficiency, instead he will blame a subordinate or colleague.

A classic alpha phrase is “I’ve tried everything, x just isn’t up to the job.” Challenging the alpha to recognise that he has not tried everything can be the start of a powerful coaching intervention, supporting him to try different ways of working with x and so improve his own performance. Once the alpha has seen that he can change, and that the change improves his performance, he is likely to become fully engaged with the coaching, applying his substantial capabilities to the weaknesses that are holding him back.

Inspiring great leadership through coaching

Organisations value alpha males for their intellectual abilities and high performance drive. Executive coaching is a powerful way to address their shortcomings. The coach who can gain the alpha’s respect and show him that he can become a more effective leader without compromising the best parts of his style will find that he embraces the coaching, applying his formidable qualities to changing himself for the better and improving organisational outcomes.