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Are you a healthy or unhealthy alpha leader?

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​In support of Movember, South African born and former Indian cricket coach, Paddy Upton joins ds…for a stimulating article exploring alpha leaders across sport and business.

"Man’s greatest strength is his gentleness. It’s the weak (leaders) who are cruel."


Alpha leaders abound in professional sport and big business, with their success built on a combination of being dynamic, driven, strategic, confident, intelligent, opinionated, result-oriented and dominant. Not all alpha leaders are the same, even if they deliver similar levels of success. Some are awesome to work with, others are only ok, and a few are downright awful and soul-destroying to be around. In fact, research suggests that 74 to 84 per cent of people working in corporates want to leave their jobs, and when asked why, they cited their manager as the main reason. People leave bosses, not companies.

I like refer to aspectrumof alpha leadership, ranging from very healthy on one side, towards unhealthy and maybe as far as destructively psychopathic on the other.

Characteristic of the really good ones is that they believe deeply in themselves and thus are secure, self-confident and have strong opinions. They are highly intelligent and are able to see the big picture, are able to find solutions, and can see further into the future than most. They take action and make the difficult decisions. Having high expectations of themselves and of others, they motivate people to produce results, and lead from the front. They are good communicators who speak slowly and clearly, and have a good sense of humour. They have high energy levels, are hugely productive, and are not scared to work long hours. Their sound morals and ethics have them live a principled life. They revel under pressure, with others looking to them for leadership in times of chaos and difficulty.

The more a leader exhibits these ‘healthy’ qualities, the more they will be respected and followed, the healthier their team environment will be, and the more they are likely to produce sustainable results.

Like heads and tails on a coin, there is another side to these ‘healthy’ alpha behaviours. Things like greed, narcissism, ego, stress and/or unawareness sees the volume turned up too high on the healthy characteristics, causing them to become unhealthy.

Too much self-confidence can flip over into arrogance, whilst being too opinionated creates the closed-minded know-it-all who talks but does not listen. They rarely admit to being wrong and will cut down anyone who disagrees with them. Many of us have been around that leader who is so full of his own ideas that he does all the talking and answers his own questions without giving anyone else the chance to do so.

The alpha leaders’ high expectations can spill over into them being constantly dissatisfied if things aren’t perfect—which they seldom are. They will constantly find flaws in others and will harp on the mistakes they make. Sport coaches rant and rave when a player makes a mistake or their team delivers below the coach’s expectations—even though, in any given season, these things naturally happen. The unhealthy alpha is overly critical and doesn’t appreciate a job well done. Their habit of highlighting the negative and overlooking the positive is demotivating for others.

When energy and enthusiasm is turned up too high, the leader becomes impatient and demanding. Getting the job done right becomes more important than relationships, as they readily explode at someone who is a bit late with a report or who doesn’t follow their often-rushed and incomplete instructions. Someone’s child being sick or a grandmother dying is no reason not to get the job done on time.

Alpha leaders are often (outwardly) unemotional and are highly judgmental of others who show emotions. An athlete who shows emotion may be labelled as weak or soft. Yet, when angry, the alpha leader may well display this anger, without seeing it as an emotional outburst. Also, their humour tends towards sarcasm and is often at the expense of others. In especially male sporting environments, dissing, putting down or trashing teammates is a popular source of humour, which, whilst funny, does cause some emotional hurt. But, of course, in this type of environment, hurt cannot be shown because it would be called soft and would invite even more abuse. So, players act tough to hide their hurt, which is neither healthy nor sustainable. They laugh to hide their real reaction, and then return the diss.

Unhealthy alpha leaders will convince themselves that it is okay to compromise on morals and ethics if it helps them achieve their own selfish needs. Where healthy alphas thrive under pressure and stress, unhealthy ones create pressure and stress for others.

The main difference between the two ends of the spectrum is the leaders impact on others. Healthy alphas will be surrounded by reports who are mostly happy, who respect, trust and often really like them. There is a higher likelihood of having a sense of unity and loyalty, with an engaged team producing better results than more skilled teams, as people serve the team or a cause greater than just themselves.

The environment under an unhealthy alpha is likely to be filled with unhappy and disengaged team members. The top performers may still work hard, but will be in survival mode as they work for their own rather than the teams cause – with their CV’s out there seeking something better. Average performers will be disengaged and will apply themselves just enough to be seen to be ‘doing their job’. Amongst the higher performers there will be higher incidences of selfishness, infighting and disciplinary problems, with higher absenteeism amongst the average performers.

Thing is, it is unlikely that such leaders will care much or be overtly aware of other people’s responses to them. Their primary focus will be on themselves and on the things that matter to them.

Both healthy and unhealthy alphas have a strong focus on themselves. The fundamental differences, I believe, is firstly in their levels of self-awareness, with healthy alphas having higher levels, and secondly, in their wiring around ‘other-person oriented’ traits such as fairness, compassion, empathy and caring. These traits are viewed as being ‘feminine energies’ since, whether by nurture or nature, they tend to manifest more often in females. As a result, it’s less likely for a female to operate as an unhealthy alpha leader.

Alpha leaders are not boxed into one way of being, into healthy or unhealthy; rather, they have the ability to shift along the continuum from degrees of healthy to unhealthy. With coaching, awareness and/ or a good reason and willingness to change, an unhealthy alpha can shift towards operating in a healthier manner. Similarly, a healthy alpha who develops greed, a hunger for power, or becomes caught up in his own success, can (often unconsciously) shift towards operating in more of an unhealthy fashion. Self- awareness and personal mastery help underpin and sustain healthy alpha leadership, whilst averting its unhealthy manifestations.

For more information you can contact Paddy directly at paddy@paddyupton.comor visit his website: