"The Horror, The Horror" When CIOs Attack

"The Horror, The Horror" When CIOs Attack

The alpha male - or female - approach tends to be a battle for herd supremacy in all its atavistic, head-butting, chest thumping splendour

Before retreating to the relative safety of academia, psychologist Jim Bright used to run interference on projects where consultants promising the moon to clients (who were demanding no less) would set off earth-shattering tantrums from the troops in IT over the naivety of both.

You would light the blue touchpaper and then duck for cover as the IT folk went ballistic, Bright says. It was like living the movie Apocalypse Now, with Bright as a peculiarly pacifist version of the alienated Captain Willard and the IT head playing the renegade Colonel Kurtz lording it over the acolytes in his hellish French compound in the depths of the Cambodian jungle.

"I remember vividly the people I was dealing with and it was just like something out of Apocalypse Now. There would be the equivalent of a dark cave with Marlon Brando at its back, and you would find these people and they would explode, and there would be 30 minutes of volcanic eruption, and then they would calm down.

"I've been in meetings where it has just basically been four-letter words flying from both sides. And as a psychologist I am supposed to somehow negotiate this," Bright says.

If organizational harmony is vulnerable when the IT folks down in the basement are bursting with machismo, it is positively imperilled by the overly macho CIO. When a CIO in touch with his inner primate strides the executive suite, dealing with him can be a terrifying experience as easily as it can be an exhilarating one.

An alpha male CIO can inspire and unify his troops, intimidate vendors and opponents into humiliating backdowns, display unflagging energy in the face of challenges that would bow a lesser man, make creative and startling leaps in logic, move people to action, set and achieve high goals and draw ruthlessly on his authority to force rivals to put aside their differences and join in his causes.

Yet the alpha male on a rampage can wreak havoc within an organization. The traits that make him glorious in triumph can make him a demon in defeat. An alpha CIO in distress can be both intimidating and pigheaded, dismissing out of hand those who disagree with him or humiliating them in front of colleagues, resisting process change that might improve results, harping and railing against the efforts of his troops. Alphas let off the leash can generate fear and create a gossip-filled, backbiting culture of unwilling compliance, be difficult to connect with and prove incapable of unifying their teams. Worse, the alpha's unshakable self-confidence can prove an insurmountable barrier to the kind of self-recognition that might alleviate the worst of his excesses.

"Unemotional and analytical in their cognitive style, alphas are eager to learn about business, technology and 'things' but have little or no natural curiosity about people or feelings," wrote Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson in an article called "Coaching the Alpha Male" in the May 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

"They rely on exhaustive data to reach business conclusions but often make snap judgments about other people, which they hold on to tenaciously. Because they believe that paying attention to feelings, even their own, detracts from getting the job done, they're surprisingly oblivious to the effect they have on others. They're judgmental of colleagues who can't control emotions yet often fail to notice how they vent their own anger and frustration. Or they dismiss their own outbursts, arguing that the same rules shouldn't apply to the top dog," they wrote.

"The more executive authority alphas achieve, the more pressure they feel and the more pronounced their faults can become. Alphas make perfect midlevel managers, where their primary role is to oversee processes. But as they approach CEO level, they're expected to become inspirational people managers. Unfortunately, most organizations aren't good at helping alphas make the required transition, which can be the greatest challenge of their careers."

So how do you deal with an alpha male in the IT shop?

"Well as soon as they change the gun laws in this country . . . " Bright jokes. "I mean this is an age-old problem."

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