Why Being the Beta Chief Is Better Than Being the Alpha Chief

Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the March 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

If you’ve sat through one staff meeting, you’ve sat through them all. You know the drill: The extroverts monopolize the dialogue, tuning out the input of others, while the introverts go to the opposite extreme, suppressing their own ideas in favor of allowing other voices to dominate the discourse. Then there are the ambiverts, who inhabit the sweet spot between the two sides, instinctively knowing when to speak up and when to shut up—an essential skill in today’s increasingly collaborative business world.

That model is explored in Dana Ardi’s book The Fall of the Alphas: The New Beta Way to Connect, Collaborate, Influence—and Lead, which contends that business leaders must dump traditional vertical models of hierarchy and control (what she dubs “alpha culture”) in favor of a more horizontal, inclusive approach.

“There are mega-trends that are changing the way we think about organizing, like the emergence of technology, globalization and social media. Businesses can’t allow one individual to make all the decisions—the complexity of today’s organizations means that ideas come from everywhere,” says Ardi, founder of New York-based Corporate Anthropology Advisors, which offers recruitment and organizational consulting services to startups, investors and enterprise clients. “We have to organize ourselves into what I call ‘beta culture,’ which I compare to an orchestra. You have virtuosos in all areas, and you organize around tasks and what needs to be done, with many voices and a conductor who brings them all together.”  

According to Ardi, alpha culture emerged in the Industrial Age and crystallized in the years following World War II. The organizing principle took its cues from military hierarchy, with a general—the CEO—serving as a centralized decision-making authority, issuing orders to the lieutenants, sergeants and privates serving under him. That approach no longer works, Ardi believes. 

“Contemporary leaders are betas,” she proclaims. “They are good listeners, they understand how to mine organizations and curate them, and they have an amazing sense of communication. They’re not leaders in that all decisions have to come from them—they drill down to make sure that everyone in the organization is sharing ideas and playing well together.”

The beta mindset must extend to all facets of a company, from how its physical space is organized to how employees communicate to how teams are rewarded for their efforts. “Then [betas] need to bring people together and have the community start to brainstorm around how they can become more effective at all of the markers of being a beta culture,” Ardi says. “What are the challenges of our company moving forward? What are the things we want to get better at? What are the opportunities for us in the marketplace? What are the things we’ve been doing that we take for granted that maybe we need to rethink? There’s a whole internal dialogue to becoming self-actualized.”

There are risks, Ardi warns. Some entrepreneurs embrace the beta concept too aggressively, opening up all discussions and decisions to internal debate. “Doing that becomes groupthink,” she says. “The best advice I can offer is to be what I call a ‘productive narcissist’—to believe in your idea, to understand the direction you want to go and how you want to move the group, but to be open, to be a good listener, to be a good communicator, to seek advice and counsel, to do something with that advice, and to always challenge common wisdom.” 

In other words: Be an ambivert. 

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