by: Issues: March / April 2008. Tags: Strategy. Categories: Strategy.

There are fewer and fewer examples of the hard-driving, intensely competitive business leader. And very few, if any, regret the demise of that style of leadership. Such a leader, whether in exile or denial, or even in an extremely rare moment of introspection, would do well to consider a personality change. There may be no better model for yesterday’s leader to adopt than the one this author describes below.

Overly masculine leadership styles are under siege like never before these days. Yesterday’s hard driving, high achiever with a sense of urgency and a ruthless streak has just two options – change or take cover.

In the Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson tell us that alpha males “are aggressive, results-driven achievers who insist on top performance from themselves and others.”1 At the extreme, “alpha anger is explosive, alpha competitiveness is ruthless, and alpha aggressiveness and urgency is in the red zone.”2 Former Disney chief Michael Eisner is a classic alpha male as is Chainsaw Al Dunlap, who was famous for his ruthless cost-cutting. Importantly, Ludeman and Erlandson continue, “the alpha male drive for dominance that once assured the survival of the toughest has become increasingly maladaptive. In an environment where brains count a whole lot more than brawn, a physical pipsqueak can be a giant.”3 The co-authors endorse a more feminine style of leadership, noting that “female managers tend to be perceived as more consultative and inclusive, whereas men are more directive and task oriented.”4

Similarly, in the Harvard Business Review article, “Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers,” Scott W. Spreier, Mary H. Fontaine and Ruth L. Malloy explain how overachievers “command and coerce rather than coach and collaborate, thus stifling subordinates.”5 Overachievers are so bent on getting results that they cut corners, keep their plans to themselves and run roughshod over anyone who opposes them. Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There covers similar territory. He coaches executives on how to stop 20 bad habits such as never apologizing or thanking people, taking all the credit, interrupting rather than listening and, generally, needing too strongly to be right. Explaining why he put the excessive need to win at the top of his list of bad habits, Goldsmith states: “Winning too much is easily the most common behavioral problem that I observe in successful people.”6 He adds that the need to win is the core issue, because “it underlies nearly every other behavioral problem.”7

Implicit in this thinking is the demand for a less dominating leadership style, one that women might more naturally display. In Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, the author of one of the chapters, Linda Coughlin, tells us, “I have become convinced that feminine values – whether expressed by women or men – are too often trivialized or ignored.”8

In another chapter, Barbara McMahon states, “In the new form of leadership, it is no longer doctrine that creates a following; it is dialogue. It’s more valuable to be able to engage than to influence. Command and control has shifted to collaboration and empowerment.”9 Instead of dictating change to your team, you need to engage them in a dialogue by asking them questions: “You must go directly to your team and ask them for their perspective. How do they see themselves in this change? What might hold them back? What would make them willing to move forward?”10 The shift here is from telling to asking, from being right to being open, from scoring goals to coaching.

Masculine or feminine. What makes a leader the most?

There is little question that the feminine style of working and managing is becoming more valued. No one today would argue with the value of being more inclusive on your team, collaborative with your colleagues and nurturing of top talent. Nevertheless, we need to beware of all-or-nothing bandwagons. Women might be better leaders than men within organizations or with strategic partners. But they also need to survive in hyper-competitive markets, where a relentless will to win is an absolute “must have.” Thus, we need organizational cultures that balance masculine and feminine traits.

Focusing on alpha males and overachievers is unhelpful if we overlook the underlying culture that creates that type. Quiet, low key employees are just as shaped by masculine cultures as high achievers. A culture that rewards only the drive to win makes everyone want to be a hero. We admire heroes in sports for good reason: we want to be like them. While most of us can’t be heroes in sports, we can act out our drive to be a hero in our workplace. The question is: How can we be heroes without behaving like we need to win at all costs?

A hero at work

In today’s knowledge economy, being a hero at work means being a solution generator, someone who has all the answers. The hero consistently develops brilliant solutions to problems. In fact, providing answers is the only form of contribution heroes at work know how to make. Their career success is based on their analytical skills, their ability to THINK. They ask questions to make their own decisions, not to draw solutions out of others.

Being a heroic solution generator is a masculine ideal. It’s about winning just as surely as it is in sports. But instead of neutering this drive, we need to learn to be heroes without having to score all the goals. Coaches can be heroes too if their teams excel. Crucially, however, being a coach in business is not the same as it is in sports. Great sports coaches have all the answers, but modern business is knowledge driven. Unlike sports, business is not just about skilled execution; it needs creative thinking to win the war of ideas.

To get others to perform as you would like, you have to be a facilitator or catalyst. This doesn’t mean never offering your own solutions. Rather, it’s more about being a playing coach, that is knowing when to offer solutions and when to draw them out of others. Managers need to redefine themselves as coaches, catalysts, brokers, facilitators, promoters, orchestra conductors, stewards or any identity… anything but the debilitating self-reliant individual contributor, the solution generator.

The hero’s model of management…

A hero sees managers as decision makers. Their job is to make decisions for their teams. They thrive on opportunities to tell others how to do things. Heroic managers regard facilitating as not real work or as simply boring. It’s no thrill for a hero to be merely a catalyst for the creative thinking and actions of others.

…and the non-heroic model

Managers sometimes lose confidence when they realize that their team members have better answers. They feel stuck because their confidence has always been based on their ability to offer solutions. It comes as a revelation that they can base their confidence on the ability to draw ideas out of others. Rather than driving yourself to keep up with developments across innumerable technologies, you simply have to remember a small set of repeatable questions. Think how much more confident you can be by asking these questions:

  • What options do you see for dealing with this issue?
  • What are the pros and cons of those options?
  • What obstacles might block your preferred option?
  • How might we surmount those obstacles?
  • What would you really like to see happen?
  • How would your proposal meet your needs?
  • What are the benefits/costs of your proposal?
  • Who else needs to be involved?
  • How can we make sure it happens?

The hero’s poor emotional intelligence

Heroic managers have low emotional intelligence because they focus on their own needs. They may be active in meetings, appearing to be good team players, but they fail to reap the full benefits of what others can contribute. This is because they like to sell their own solutions. When two sides want to be right, the chance of open, creative thinking is slim. Low emotional intelligence underlies the assumption that a logical argument based on hard facts should carry the day because everyone is (presumably) rational. But people resist one-way solutions. It’s not just that there may be better ones but that they feel devalued by being left out. One-sided solution generation conveys the message that others’ input isn’t good enough.

Engaging clients

Heroic managers rush to offer solutions to clients. They ask fact-gathering questions to develop answers to a client’s problem rather than asking facilitative questions like: “What would you like to see happen?” or “What sort of solution would best meet your needs?” When heroic managers propose their own solutions, their first attempts are often rejected. Instead of switching to facilitative mode, they try harder until something sticks. Heroic managers are stuck because they’ve conditioned their clients to expect them to have all the answers.

Managing change

Heroic managers are one-way communicators. They think that lots of communication, offered frequently, is the way to get people on board. Heroic managers demoralize people by implying that management is in the driver’s seat. People then feel expendable and devalued because it is painfully clear that their opinion is of no relevance in planning the change. People may react stronger to feeling devalued than to the change itself.

Managing performance and giving negative feedback

Heroic managers deliver feedback instead of trying to draw improvement plans out of subordinates. But this is why giving feedback is so poorly handled, and why it usually generates defensiveness. Facilitative managers ask supportive questions to help team members acknowledge their own weak performance and devise their own corrective actions. A facilitative approach with a team member who communicated badly in a meeting would be to ask: “What do you think went well and not so well in the meeting?” and, “What could you have done differently to avoid that?” Or “How do you think you could manage situations like that more smoothly in the future?” Team members are more likely to be committed to improvement if they devise their own action plans.


Managers with a heroic mindset sometimes hesitate to assert themselves because they know how infuriating it is for another hero’s judgment to be questioned and how it can provoke a defensive, angry reaction. If they shifted to a facilitative mode, they could assert themselves by asking supportive questions to help others explore options in terms of their own interests. For example, a question like “What would be the advantages for you of doing X?” is less confrontational than the statement, “I think it would be better to do X.” Crucially, the focus is on the person’s interests, not on the questioner’s need to score points or be right. So, it is possible to be assertive without being confrontational.

If all your business needs to succeed is successful execution, you may then get away with pushing people to work harder and faster. However, if you need people to think creatively, then pushing hard will become self-defeating. This is because in the knowledge economy pushing people does more than just disengage people. It simply does not work. The reason is that the only thing that stress and pressure can do is make people execute faster. They cannot make people think more clearly. As a leader, you can only foster creative thinking by asking people the right questions in the right way. Questions should not be asked in a manner that makes it appear that you are conducting a police interrogation. Rather, the questions, like your manner, should convey openness, safety and trust.

There still is a vital place for masculine competitiveness in business. Such competitiveness, however, needs to be directed to outsmarting competitors in your industry, not to dominating everyone in your organization. As well, changing your style from a goal scorer’s to coach’s means that you’ll have to let go of your need to offer solutions. You’ll have to ask more and tell less. And as a playing coach, you can follow the 80-2- rule – you should be drawing solutions out of others 80 percent of the time




  1. Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, Harvard Business School Press, 2006, p3.
  2. Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, P9.
  3. Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, P32.
  4. Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, P22.
  5. “Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers,” Scott W. Spreier, Mary H. Fontaine and Ruth L. Malloy, Harvard Business Review, June 2006, P1.
  6. What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith, Hyperion, 2007, P45.
  7. Goldsmith, P45.
  8. Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, edited by Linda Coughlin, Ellen Wingard and Keith Hollihan, Jossey-Bass, 2005, P11.
  9. Enlightened Power, P290.
  10. Enlightened Power, P291.