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  • Soft skills in a leader can have a big impact
  • Soft skills in a leader can have a big impact
    TED Conference, Creative Commons (2016) ©

How are New Alphas redefining leadership?

What are the characteristics of a good leader? Being assertive and powerful, or empathetic and ethical? Canvas8 spoke with Danielle Harlan, CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential and author of The New Alpha, to learn what effective leadership looks like in 2017 and beyond.

Location North America / Global

“Leadership matters,” said Danielle Harlan in her 2015 TEDx talk, 'Reimagining Leadership for the 21st Century'. “The people who make decisions at the top affect our lives in ways big and small. Everything from how well the economy is doing, to the education system, to the equality in America. Even at the micro level, leadership affects how much you enjoy your job, how much money you make, how far you're able to advance. But we have a leadership problem at all levels and across multiple sectors.”

Her point is validated by studies that suggest a widespread lack of trust in leaders; a 2014 poll found that just 4% of American voters think politicians keep their campaign promises, while 82% of respondents to a separate survey said they didn’t trust the person they worked for. [1][2] What’s more, 75% of workers in the US say their boss is the most difficult and stressful part of their job. [3] But does being a good leader have to mean being a bad person?

In her new book, The New Alpha, Harlan outlines the qualities and values of a new type of leader – someone who prioritises achievement along with personal and organisation-wide fulfilment and positive impact. Canvas8 sat down with her to understand what great leadership looks like in 2017 and beyond.


What makes a New Alpha?
“When we think about the traditional alphas, they’re high-achieving. They are people who will do whatever they need to do to achieve a goal,” says Harlan. “These kinds of leaders are effective, but completely terrible to work with. They’re the kind of people that have temper tantrums in meetings and drive themselves and others into the ground trying to accomplish things.” [4] With the traditional alpha model, where the sole focus is to achieve, influence and motivate, other important factors go out the window. It’s why people often find bosses unethical, unfair and unpleasant; the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that only 24% of global respondents think that CEOs exhibit highly ethical behaviours, and just 25% think they treat employees well. [5]

New Alphas are also focused on achievements, but there are additional factors that drive them. “Throughout my career, I’ve experienced a lot of really effective, high-achieving leaders who are transformational and who have a compelling vision,” Harlan explains. “They bring other people into their vision and they are inspiring to work with – emotionally intelligent, highly ethical, but also really effective.” [4]

When we think about the traditional alphas, they’re people who will do whatever they need to do to achieve a goal. These kinds of leaders are effective, but completely terrible to work with

With numerous studies highlighting that working fewer hours leads to greater productivity, that more ethical leadership encourages innovation, and that people with higher levels of emotional intelligence are more effective leaders, social science findings back up what Harlan says people have known for a long time – the best leaders strive to be likable, relatable and build positive relationships. [6][7][8]

“People are rating qualities like honesty as more important than ever in their leaders,” says Harlan. [4] Authentic leadership – or the ability to be self-aware and act ‘authentically’ in one’s actions and interactions – is positively correlated to numerous positive outcomes, such as greater personal happiness and wellbeing and more effective leadership performance. [9][10] A poll commissioned by Canvas8 corroborates this; the top three values Americans look for in a leader are honesty (66%), intelligence (52%) and integrity (39%). [11] These positive traits are often considered something that we do because it’s ‘morally right’, but Harlan points to research that also suggests that there are a number of commercial benefits. One study from 2010 found that people who make ethical decisions have better creative thinking and problems solving skills, while several other studies show that employees who perceive their leaders as ethical tend to be more engaged or motivated in their work. [12][13]

A stress-induced boss can be bad for business A stress-induced boss can be bad for business
Sebastiaan ter Burg, Creative Commons (2016) ©

A new generation of leaders
“There are people across the generations that embody the New Alpha,” says Harlan. “I interviewed people in their 70s and 80s who were the pioneering people for the model. I don’t think it just applies to Gen Y and Gen Z. But the values of New Alpha leadership are very much aligned with the values of those generations.” [4]

So what do these generations value, and how do they align with New Alpha thinking? “Millennials place a lot of value on things like finding meaning and purpose in their work,” says Harlan. “It’s not that previous generations didn’t also have that, it’s just that Millennials are more willing to make changes in their lives and career to reflect that.” [4] In a 2014 study, for instance, 55% of Gen Y respondents said a company’s volunteer policy influenced their decision to accept a job offer, while 79% wanted their boss to serve more as a coach or mentor. [14]

There are people across the generations that embody the New Alpha. I interviewed people in their 70s and 80s who were the pioneering people for the model. I don’t think it just applies to Gen Y

For younger generations, ‘where I work’ translates to ‘who I am’; 88% of US Gen Yers say they want ‘work-life integration’. [14] "Millennials want to truly understand a company's purpose, align with it, and work with others to propel the organisation's performance," says insights firm Universum[15] “We often think that finding meaning in our work and/or helping others to do this is a nice thing to have, but without any real tangible consequence,” says Harlan. “However, research shows that finding meaning in one’s work increases motivation, engagement, job satisfaction, empowerment, organisational identification, career development, individual performance, and personal fulfilment.” [4]

In the past, organisations viewed ‘growth and development’ as a nice perk, says Harlan, but research on Gen Y employees shows that this cohort values opportunities to learn and grow more than Gen Xers or Boomers when applying for a job. [4] Indeed, research from Gallup has found that 87% of Yers rate ‘professional or career growth and development opportunities’ as important to them in a job. [16]

Empathy and emotional intelligence are two pillars of the New Alpha Empathy and emotional intelligence are two pillars of the New Alpha
Sebastiaan ter Burg, Creative Commons (2016) ©

Rockstar leaders
One major generational shift that’s affecting leadership is that Gens Y and Z no longer dream of appearing in Rolling Stone – they’d prefer to be splashed on the covers of Fast Company or Wired like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. According to a survey conducted in 2014, 67% of US Gen Yers said they wanted to start their own business – for the younger generations, it’s cool to be a leader. [17]

These ‘rockstar leaders’ certainly aren’t shying away from shouting about their New Alpha ethical credentials. In February 2017, Mark Zuckerberg penned a mission statement tackling everything from fake news to growing anti-globalisation sentiment. Throughout the letter, he outlined a grand vision that implies Facebook, and its ability to connect people, is the solution to the world’s most egregious problems. While his aims might seem lofty, Zuckerberg has perfected the art of leading with a purpose, and is one of the celebrity CEOs that Harlan identifies as part of the new breed that prioritises achievement along with fulfilment and positive impact.

There is a low engagement rate at work around the world because we have a bunch of leaders who are in this more traditional alpha mode who are either unaware or are unwilling to change

So who else does Harlan identify as a New Alpha? “The comedian Stephen Colbert. He recently donated a huge amount of money to fund a bunch of school projects. He did it very under the radar. There wasn’t a ton of press done about it, that he wanted to do good. Elizabeth Warren, who is a Democratic senator, is a great example too. She’s finds meaning and purpose in issues of equality and particularly economic equality. She stands up for the underdog and the little guy.” [4]

But there are still many prominent leaders that adhere to a more traditional alpha model. “Trump’s more of a traditional alpha,” says Harlan. “The primary thing that Trump lacks that any leader needs to have in order to be effective is good critical thinking skills – being able to objectively analyse data and figure out what’s going on to make a reasonable decision.” [4] And the polls point in this direction; one month into his presidency, Trump's 40% job approval rating was 21 percentage points below the historical average. [18] “People ask me, do I think he’s emotionally intelligent. My first response is he’s probably not demonstrating caring concern for everybody. But he did tap into some real discontent in the United States during his presidential campaign. He’s not an emotionally mature leader, but I give him credit for the fact that I think he was able to empathise with a large group of people who have largely been ignored in the political process recently.” [4]

Mark Zuckerberg is the poster boy of ‘rockstar leader’ Mark Zuckerberg is the poster boy of ‘rockstar leader’
Kārlis Dambrāns, Creative Commons (2016) ©

Insights and opportunities
Could a traditional alpha such as Trump learn to be a New Alpha? To become part of this new wave, Harlan says: “You need to understand how the new model is different and you need to have opportunities for practice and feedback. The final piece is you need to have the will.” At a business level, she believes that not even attempting to change could be detrimental. “There is a low engagement rate at work around the world because we have a bunch of leaders who are in this more traditional alpha mode who are either unaware or are unwilling to change.” [4] This has a significant negative impact; a 2016 Gallup poll found that just half of US Gen Yers – compared to 60% of other age groups – strongly agreed that they planned to be working at the same company in a year's time. [19]

Organisations are starting to react as this cohort makes up a growing proportion of the workforce. Programmes such as Google’s ‘Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute’, designed to create mindful, compassionate managers, and L’Oréal’s recruitment campaign asking employees to share advice for their younger selves both fall in line with Gen Y’s workplace aspirations. [20] "They want something different," writes Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte. "They are demanding, they want meaningful work, and they expect their employer to make work more rewarding in many ways." [21]

The traditional alpha model doesn’t even think about health and wellness. It’s just ‘what do I need to do to achieve the goal, regardless of how that negatively impacts me or those around me’

Harlan notes that, as a result of these demanding workers, “more organisations are now providing health and wellness programmes.” And with New Alphas at the helm, businesses have an opportunity to become more caring and considerate. “The traditional alpha model doesn’t even think about health and wellness. It’s just ‘what do I need to do to achieve the goal, regardless of how that negatively impacts me or those around me.’” But for new leaders, “it’s about getting enough sleep, eating right, getting regular exercise, staying hydrated and being able to effectively manage stress.” [4] Currently, only 9% of the global workforce has access to some form of wellness programme, but if a company does offer one, it has to come from an authentic, compassionate place; only 25% of employees believe that their company provides such a perk because they care about their health. [22]

Qualities such as being caring and compassionate have previously been seen as ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ attributes – but that doesn’t mean they’re not impactful. In 2013, John Gerzema, co-author of The Athena Doctrine, conducted a global study of 64,000 people, finding that two-thirds of the population thought the world would be a better place if leaders demonstrated more feminine characteristics. [23] Harlan agrees that New Alpha-style leadership is certainly more embracing of this feminine approach. “I’d say it’s more a case of finding a balance. Yes, they’re logical thinkers. Yes, they have good decision-making skills based on objective data. But, most importantly, they also pay attention to people.” [4]

Jo Allison is Canvas8’s editor. Previously, she worked for retail trends consultancy GDR, where shopping was part of the job description. When she’s not getting her head around the quirks of human behaviour, she’s busy ‘researching’ the latest food or fitness fad.

Danielle Harlan is the founder and CEO of the Center for Advancing Leadership and Human Potential. She earned her doctorate in political science and MA in education from Stanford University. Named one of Silicon Valley’s ‘40 Under 40’, she has worked as an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and U.C. Berkeley Extension’s Corporate and Professional Development Program.

1. 'Just 4% say candidates keep their campaign promises', Rasmussen Reports (November 2014)
2. '82 percent of people don't trust the boss to tell the truth', Forbes (January 2013)
3. 'Stress is killing you', Hogan Assessments (November 2012)
4. Interview with Danielle Harlan conducted by author
5. '2016 Edelman Trust Barometer: leadership in a divided world', Edelman (2016)
6. 'France reviews the 35-hour working week', Canvas8 (February 2016)
7. 'Germany wants to ban work emails after hours', Canvas8 (January 2015)
8. 'How ethical leadership influence employees’ innovative work behavior: a perspective of intrinsic motivation', Journal of Business Ethics (August 2013)
9. 'Authentic leadership and eudaemonic well-being: understanding leader- follower outcomes', The Leadership Quarterly (June 2005)
10. 'Authentic leadership: development and validation of a theory-based measure', Journal of Management (February 2008)
11. 'What do Americans look for in a political leader?', Canvas8 (September 2016)
12. 'Creativity and ethics: the relationship of creative and ethical problem-solving', Creative Research Journal (February 2010)
13. 'The influence of ethical leadership on trust and work engagement: An exploratory study', SA Journal of Industrial Psychology (2014)
14. 'Glassdoor: bringing radical transparency to the workplace', Canvas8 (February 2016)
15. 'Here are some of the most preferred companies of students: Universum survey', The Economic Times (June 2015)
16. 'Millennials want jobs to be development opportunities', Gallup (June 2016)
17. 'What do people want from a job?', Canvas8 (May 2016)
18. 'Trump job approval 21 points below average at one-month mark', Gallup (February 2017)
19. 'Millennials: the job-hopping generation', Gallup (May 2016)
20. 'How L'Oréal used emojis and selfies to transform its hiring process', LinkedIn Talent Blog (October 2015)
21. 'Why companies fail to engage today's workforce: the overwhelmed employee', Forbes (March 2014)
22. 'Global Wellness Institute releases report and survey on ‘the future of wellness at work’', Global Wellness Institute (February 2016)
23. 'Girl power: a new leadership paradigm', Canvas8 (August 2013)

Jo Allison