The myth of the alpha leader is destroying our relationships—at work and at home

Does the suit really make the man?
Does the suit really make the man?
Image: Unsplash/Ben Rosett
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According to a Fox News article written by Suzanne Venker, women’s achievements in the workplace are dooming their marriages. As women are increasingly “groomed to be leaders rather than to be wives, [they] become too much like men. They’re too competitive. Too masculine. Too alpha.” The author’s premise is that the husband is meant to be the alpha in the household, and cohabiting alphas are like “like two bulls hanging out in the same pen together.”

I take exception to this article, but not for the obvious reason. The contention that women’s success at work leads to marital dissolution is so laughably unsupported by facts that it’s hardly worth disputing. Divorce rates are strongly negatively correlated with women’s educational attainment and income level, as well as the rise of two-income families. While University of Chicago economists made a splash a few years back by reporting that marital satisfaction is diminished when wives earn more than husbands, a more up-to-date study paints a more nuanced picture: Unequal incomes are associated with marriage instability regardless of who earns more, but having a career decreases a woman’s probability of divorce by a whopping 25%. Equal-earning marriages are even less likely to end in divorce.

What bothered me about the article was not its easily falsifiable premise, but the author’s unthinking acceptance of an American trope, the leader as alpha male or female. The metaphor evokes images of chest-thumping silverback gorillas and snarling she-wolves. This symbolism of leader-as-dictator has wormed its way deeply into the American subconscious—and it’s wrong.

Cultural assumptions have the power to shape society in both positive and negative ways. Countries that expect children (boys and girls) to be good at math produce better mathematicians. Conversely, expectations can backfire: countries that paint youth with the brush of sexual innocence have high rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. And when an entire culture conflates leadership with aggressive domination, it opens the door to bad behavior in both the boardroom and the living room.

As a society, we pay a steep price for maintaining the fiction of silverback gorillas and lone wolves. We reward bad behavior in the workplace like stealing credit from others, self-aggrandizement and entitlement. We discourage smart, talented people from seeking leadership positions because they falsely believe that superhero skills are a prerequisite. (This particularly affects women, who systematically underestimate their abilities relative to men. It is probably no coincidence that America lags behind many nations in women leaders.) And, as evidenced by Suzanne Venker, this stereotype can even infiltrate our romantic lives, setting the expectation that one partner—of any gender—needs to be dominant. This may be a recipe for fun and games in the bedroom, as Venker claims, but over the long term, respect and self-esteem are eroded by a partnership of unequals.

In the American mythos, great men accomplish great deeds with little or no help from others. The truth, of course, is much messier. Nobody lives in a vacuum. Schoolchildren are taught that Thomas Edison single-handedly invented the lightbulb, and that Abraham Lincoln unswervingly shepherded the country toward the abolition of slavery. But in fact, the achievements of Edison and Lincoln would not exist without the cooperation, counsel and labor of many other talented and insightful individuals. Those contributions were not forced by intimidation or displays of dominance. Just as generosity is more effective than bullying or criticism when it comes to eliciting welcome behaviors in a spouse, so do colleagues respond best to leaders with positive motivations.

Great leaders do not succeed mainly through classical alpha behaviors like intimidation, micromanagement, and aggressiveness. Even Steve Jobs, a poster child for the American alpha male, said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do.” And for every visionary, controlling executive like Steve Jobs, there are many more people like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who acknowledge that they succeed by amplifying other people. Yet outside of management classes and business self-help books, not nearly enough Americans have internalized the use of soft power, persuasion, collaboration and mentorship as keys to great leadership.

By blindly accepting the trope of the alpha male or female, we perpetuate it. If we can shift the leadership mythos in America toward more clear-eyed realism, we will ultimately get more leaders whose qualifications go beyond a talent for chest-thumping. It may not feel as satisfying to declare that you’re good at nurturing, empowering, and lifting up other people. But that’s what great leaders—and romantic partners—do.