O ctober 2009

Published October 2009




Musings Index

Must You Be an Alpha to Be a Good Project Manager?

A week or two ago, a group of us were discussing the different types of project manager identified in my paper: Project Teamwork, Personality Profiles and the Population at Large: Do we have enough of the right kind of people?[1] During the discussion, the question came up: "Do you have to be an 'alpha' to be a good project manager?"

Now here is a subject about which I know very little, if anything. However, I have observed that there are a number of people who frequently write about project management in popular magazines, but who obviously have little serious knowledge or experience of managing a real project. Instead, they defer to others or quote from the ubiquitous Internet. So, given all of that and in this instance, I feel eminently qualified to write on this subject of "alphas".

So what is an "alpha" anyway? Well, it typically refers to a male of the species although the characteristics are also evident in some females. WiseGEEK describes it this way:[2]

"Alpha male is a term used in describing any group or society of animals that live closely together and have a dominant leader. Alpha dog is often used in both domesticated breeds of dogs and in wolf societies to express the leadership characteristics of the dog to which all other dogs defer. There are also alpha females or leading females in many pack animal societies (including human societies), with the alpha female having dominance over all females in the pack and possibly some of the lower beta males or omega males ... In work settings, the alpha male may be a natural leader, exuding confidence."

Sounds like the makings of a good project manager. So you might say that a good project manager is a dog.

But wait, the same article goes on to say:[3]

"But [the alpha male] also may be contentious, demanding and difficult to work with. This is thought to be in part due to the alpha male attempting to retain his stature, however unconsciously, as alpha. Being the top salesperson, the quickest worker, the most aggressive boss may contribute to remaining at the top, and the alpha male has a tendency to respond aggressively to any attempts by others to outshine him.

"This is true in non-human settings too. The alpha male is continually being tested to see if he remains dominant and may need to stage pitched fights with upcoming males in a group to remain 'top dog'. In the human setting, the alpha male usually doesn't fight physically, but instead acts with language, brusque or dismissive behavior, or with other tactics to remain at the top.

"Though leaders in a company are excellent to have, alpha male characteristics in the workplace may not always be seen as positive. Aggression and disregard for others are not necessarily inspiring. Some people lead better by being 'beta' and having good communication skills, sensitivity toward others, and downplaying their strengths so they can showcase the strengths of others."

For a project manager, that sounds more like it - otherwise the project manager is a real dog.

But of course, none of the foregoing quotes are being discussed in the context of project management. Instead, it's all about how men attract women. So, what does WiseGEEK say about "beta" types? Here's a sample:

"The guys who join math teams or play chess at lunch are usually the beta males and may be thought less attractive by girls. It should be noted that 'nerds' (and here we use the term fondly and affectionately), are becoming increasingly popular. As long-term mates or 'boyfriends', they stereotypically on average tend to be nicer and more respectful toward girls. This article also does not imply that all attractive males are necessarily alpha. Alpha males are more about exhibiting traits that are essentially masculine or 'macho'. Many attractive males are beta to the core when it comes to relating with people."

In a more serious context, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, in their book Alpha Male Syndrome[4] take a rather different view. Chapter 1 opens with the following paragraph:[5]

"Human history is the story of alphas, those indispensable powerhouses who take charge, conquer new worlds, and move heaven and earth to make things happen. Whether heading a band of warriors, bringing a vital new product to market, guiding a team to glory, or steering a giant conglomerate, alphas are hardwired for achievement and eager to tackle challenges that others find intimidating. Along the way, they inspire awe and admiration - and sometimes fear and trembling. Wherever they are and whatever they do, they stand out from the crowd, usually leaving an indelible impression on those whose lives they touch."

All of that sounds pretty impressive but, unfortunately, alphas have a downside. As Ludeman and Erlandson go on to explain:[6]

"When [alphas] are not their best - when they are unaware, out of balance, or out of control - they create problems that diminish the value of their productive energy. And when they are at their worst, they go down in flames and drag their coworkers, their families, and their organizations with them."

Yes, we've actually seen projects with project managers like that - and suffered the consequences.

But can you bring about change? Well, apparently, that's what the aforementioned book is all about. As Marshall Goldsmith states in the Foreword to the book:[7]

"[This book] goes beyond helping you, the reader, understand the Alpha Male Syndrome. It shows you what to do about it. The authors state, 'If you and you alone change, others will change.' They then proceed to help you change your own behavior - and therefore the world - in two important ways:

  1. If you have to deal with alpha males (as almost all of us do), the book explains how to manage the relationship to achieve maximum results, instead of spending your workdays in a state of anxiety or wasting your time in useless whining.
  2. If you are an alpha male (as many of the readers of this book are), it shows you how to look in the mirror and make positive changes in your own behavior."

That's all well and good but under stress, as in project work, people naturally default to their comfort zone. The solution is to recognize the problem and change the project manager. Which of course, is exactly what we do when moving a major project from the planning phase, which requires "beta" characteristics, to the execution phase, which requires "alpha" energy.

In conclusion, if you are an "alpha" project manager, then take the time to watch your own performance and watch your step. If you are not, then perhaps you should try to become one to gain the benefit of both worlds.

Of course if you are not a project manager (or even if you are) but only interested in attracting the opposite sex - then that's a whole different ball game!

1.www.maxwideman.com/papers/profiles/intro.htm, May, 2002
2. www.wisegeek.com/what-is-an-alpha-male.htm accessed 3/32/09
3. Ibid.
4. Ludeman, K., & Eddie Erlandson Alpha Male Syndrome, Harvard Business School Press, 2006
5. Ibid, p1
6. Ibid, p8
7. Ibid, page x
Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page