From Alpha to Beta and Back: Coaching the Post-Heroic Leader

Jeffrey Hull's picture Submitted by Jeffrey Hull September 25, 2017 - 4:20pm
From Alpha to Beta and Back: Coaching the Post-Heroic Leader

Do you ever have a boomer coaching client express frustration with an up-and-coming Millennial leader?  Or vice versa, do you ever find yourself coaching a Millennial or Gen-X leader who struggles with the command and control style of his or her boss?  In my practice, I find this tension between younger and older leaders comes up all the time.  Yet, I wonder if we don’t over-simplify this dynamic by explaining it away as purely a “generation gap”.  In fact, just this week I had two clients – one Gen-X, the other Millennial (based on current definitions of these categories), with only about five years between them – each complaining to me about the other.  

The first instance went like this (Millennial Peter speaks about his Gen-X boss, Mary): “Mary is just too rigid, Jeff. She got all upset at me when I wrote to the CHRO directly to ask if we could start up a wellness committee.” Mary’s retort about her younger subordinate: “Peter really pushes the boundaries, Jeff.  I warned him about by-passing me and raising issues with senior management directly. It’s not that I don’t support his creative energy, but we need to follow established protocol…and I need to be in the loop!”  

Who’s right? (As a coach, watch out for your own assumptions as you reflect on this one.)

All across corporate America and beyond, the landscape of leadership is shifting. And, as the vignette above demonstrates, age is not always the underlying issue. There is something much bigger going on. Across the organizations where I coach, hierarchies are tumbling, org charts are getting flatter or discarded altogether. Networked, shared and co-leadership formats are emerging as hallmarks of today’s high-performing teams.  Boomers, Gen-X’ers and Millennials are all choreographing the dance of leadership in new and evolving patterns.

Today, we live in an “age of convergence,” as I like to call it—where demographic distinctions are blurring (not unusual to have Millennials managing boomers)— where time zones, geographic distances, and functional lines no longer inhibit collaboration, where communicating with anyone, anytime – by text, email, or video – is as close as the smartphone in your pocket.  Being a traditional, or what leadership scholars call a “heroic” leader (e.g. white knight rides in to save the day) with the requisite charisma, directive, alpha-style no longer guarantees a ticket to the C-suite.  Today, I am just as likely to find myself coaching an introverted “beta” style leader, one who leads with expertise, consensus-building, and deep listening.  Yet, even with the emergence of more diverse and flatter organizations, people still want to be led.  Here’s the question I grapple with:  how do we coach leaders to be effective when the formula for success is constantly changing?  

My answer has been to view leadership coaching as more about developing agility than about mastering any one form or style.  Just as emotional agility – represented beautifully by the work of my colleague, Susan David, in her recent book, “Emotional Agility”—is a practical application of well-known emotional intelligence frameworks from Dan Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and others (e.g. self-awareness, social awareness, self-management & relationship management), leadership agility also springs from a foundation of key competencies. With this in mind, I developed an agility framework based around six “development areas” that come up regularly in my coaching with hundreds of leaders over twenty years. 

Each dimension in the F.I.E.R.C.E. model represents a spectrum from left to right (alpha to beta) where an individual leader can assess themselves and gather feedback from others:  

Flexible (style):  alpha, directive, authoritative<------------------------->beta, consensus, inquisitive
Intentional (communication): analytical, data-driven <-------------> aspirational, narrative-driven
Emotional (agility): reserved, contained <-----------------------------------------> empathic, expressive
Real (authentic): stoic, conservative, closed <------------------------------> open, vulnerable, humble
Collaborative (power over/with): delegating, advising <--------------------> empowering, coaching
Engaged (energy): structured, productivity-driven <--------------->fluid, creative, balanced energy

For my clients, assessing themselves along the spectrum of dimensions above, and gathering feedback on how they are perceived by others, helps them reflect on three key aspects of their leadership journey—Identity, Strengths, and Opportunities:
 

  1. Identity: how do they see themselves as a leader?  Do they resonate with heroic/alpha traits, post-heroic/beta attributes or somewhere in the middle? 
  2. Strengths: what approach to leading comes naturally? What habits have they developed?  What works for them (until it doesn’t)? 
  3. Opportunities: how might they expand in one direction or the other? What new practices could they take on? In which direction – alpha/beta –is their growing edge? 

How does this work in practice?  Well, let’s take a closer look with Mary and Peter. Mary is a highly regimented, focused scientist by training. She is a strong-willed, alpha-style leader, who, while only in her mid-thirties, has already worked her way up to a VP-role in pharmaceutical research.  She is stoic and at times dogmatic, a believer in protocols – and following the rules. 

Receiving feedback based on the leadership agility framework above, she came to see that for the maverick, intuitive types (the “mad scientists”, as she calls them), her directive, structured style could prove frustrating.  To get the most from these folks, she needs to allow—even foster—a more fluid, unstructured, even (occasionally) disorderly workplace.  She’s practicing at that edge – of letting go of control, nurturing creativity—committed to releasing the genius within her people.  

Peter, her up-and-coming, risk-taking Millennial subordinate, is hard-charging, extroverted and impatient.  He is highly creative and chafes at being controlled or following protocols.  Yet, his own team of junior staff sometimes feel “at sea” under him – as he provides little direction, works odd hours and assumes email dialogues are unbounded, including nights and weekends.  An unusual mix of alpha personality and beta leadership style, feedback on the agility assessment above led him to recognize that for his boss, and for some of his team members, he needs to be more organized, consistent, and respectful of boundaries.  His challenge is to both honor his creative impulses while at the same time operate as a mentor, role model and good citizen on Mary’s team.  

Peter and Mary, like thousands of leaders in today’s shifting leadership landscape, are feeling their way into this new “norm” where leading is much more complex and subtle than just setting goals, barking orders, or tracking results.  Today’s diverse, wired, and globally interconnected world requires leaders who have a strong sense of identity, know their strengths – and who are not just open to change, but deeply desire to grow in ways that augment their effectiveness. 

How do you coach up-and-coming young leaders, or struggling boomers, as hierarchies and heroic traditions dissolve around them? Do you seek to continuously expand the horizon of what it means to be a leader—and a coach—in a world of constant disruption, technological and demographic upheaval? I consider my approach using the FIERCE model a “work in progress” and welcome fellow explorers to journey with me.  Let me know your thoughts. I can be reached at jeff.hull@instituteofcoaching.org.