High-street doyen Mary Portas has provided a damning verdict on the effects that so-called ‘alpha’ individuals – ie, particularly driven, determined and goal-fixated people – have upon not just the people around them, but the business community as a whole.
In a 30 January interview with Director magazine,  Portas admits that she once wore the alpha label herself, during her concerted, early-1990s push to transform the Harvey Nichols brand from stale to cool.
She recounts to the journal that it was a stage of her career where she was delivering the goods and earning coverage in the newspapers for her efforts. “I thought I was on fire,” she says. “Then I went for a performance review with my boss, sales director Patrick Hanley. He told me: ‘I want to talk to you about your attitude.’ I was taken aback. He said: ‘You’re a natural leader, but there are times when you don’t bring other people with you. A great leader always brings people with them. You therefore need to show a little more collaborative spirit and vulnerability.’ I was gutted to hear that critique and it took me a while to get over it. Later I realised that it’s never ‘I’; it’s ‘we’. What a great man.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Portas thinks that around that time she had succumbed to ‘alpha culture’, which she describes as a “predominantly linear and somewhat aversive culture that is based on individualism, not collaboration. This is how most businesses work – even if the intent isn’t there – because historically we’ve seen that, in order to get to the top of an organisation, one must be the loudest person, the one who wins.”
By way of a recent example, she cites Sir Philip Green – particularly his handling of the BHS retail chain, which collapsed amid huge controversy over his governance. “If you were to tell him: ‘I think you’ve done wrong,’ I don’t think he’d understand,” says Portas. “He’s stuck in a time warp. He would think: ‘I made this business, so I can behave how I like.’”
She notes: “I don’t believe he sets out to be a bad person, but I do think that he’s greedy and he’s about the individual. His behaviour is what ‘winning’ is seen as. Let’s face it: he was knighted. So was Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland Group … These people have been honoured for the results of behaviour that’s based on ‘winning’ and getting more money. There is a huge lack of empathy and also something slightly sociopathic about alpha culture.”
Does this mean we should regard alpha leaders as anathema to morale and organisational stewardship, or – with an eye on diversity – do they still have a valuable role to play?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Last year, primatologist Frans de Waal gave a fascinating TED talk that suggested our whole conception of alpha individuals is a clumsy misinterpretation.  One of de Waal’s central points was that, among chimpanzees, alpha males are those who exhibit the greatest amount of empathy for their lower-order comrades. We at The Institute wouldn’t have set collaboration as one of our five, primary Dimensions of Leadership if we thought that leading people was in any way a solitary pursuit. And when you explore the careers of high-achieving individuals and ask them to honestly account for their success, you get an awful lot of mentions of ‘we’, and very few of ‘I’.”
Cooper notes: “There will always be people in the workplace who are low on empathy and narcissistic – individuals who have no compunction about taking credit for other people’s actions. They aren’t going to disappear. But what we can do is challenge the notion of leadership as a particular set of attributes vested in the individual. And one way to do that is to emphasise those more honest accounts of collaborative journeys towards success. How much can any individual really achieve on their own? It has to be a collective effort.”
She adds: “As Tammy Erickson points out in the latest, Institute-sponsored Drucker Report, the most effective leaders of tomorrow will be those who can attract and retain talent. People will want to work with leaders who have the capability to connect, intrigue and engage. The future is collaborative. The future is a place in which it is enjoyable to work with people, and where credit is not wholly located in a single individual. We will continue to see standout figures – but what will make them stand out is the energy and conviction behind their ambitions: qualities to which others will be naturally drawn.
“If we could talk about great leaders more in terms of the collaborative buzz they create among the people around them, that would paint a far more compelling and realistic picture of the job than if we dwelled on the ‘superpower’ of charisma. For leaders who are somehow unable to collaborate, there is something missing from the equation.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out The Institute’s resources on teamworking
Image of Mary Portas courtesy of Featureflash Photo Agency, via Shutterstock