Do you ever have doubts about your ability to deliver? Do you never give up until you reach your goal? Do you always say exactly what you think? Do you hate being asked dumb questions by a wimpy columnist you could crush between your fingers like a milk-soaked Fig Newton?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re an alpha. You thrive on adrenaline. You search for conflict. You must dominate every person you meet in every meeting you ever attend. You’re successful. You’re feared. And, if the recent studies by leading scientists prove to be correct, you’re also a stressed-out nutcase who is probably due for a heart attack.
Or so I learned in an article by Melinda Beck in The Wall Street Journal. Titled “Are Alpha Males Healthy?” reporter Beck talks about recent studies conducted on wild baboons in Kenya’s Amboseli basin. (Granted, some people would question the relevance of wild baboon behavior. These people have obviously never met your company’s management team.)
As for the apes, “researchers from Princeton and Duke studied 125 males in five groups over nine years and found that while the alpha males get the best food and the most mates, they experienced far more stress than the beta males just beneath them in the hierarchy, based on levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in fecal samples.”
The same results are seen in the studies of alphas in industry, and you don’t need to analyze fecal samples to confirm it. Human alphas thrive on adrenaline, the hormone that gave cave men and cave women the power to run away from wooly mammoths and other predators. It also provides middle managers the pep to run away from clipboard-toting representatives from the human resources department.
But constant doses of adrenaline are not good for the body and can “eventually weaken the immune system, raise blood-pressure, block arteries and spread inflammation.” This is why alphas flame out, or die out. And if your friendly neighborhood alpha is also a type-A type, you might as well start composing their eulogy right now.
A study of 1,750 Canadians reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that type-A alphas are so aggressive, impatient and just plain hostile that they had “twice the risk of cardiovascular problems” as the Canadians who were only intermittently hostile. “Not all alpha males are type A, ” a New York psychiatrist tells Beck, “but the combination can be deadly from a health standpoint.”
(If you are thinking that African baboons are more similar to our domestic workforce than any bunch of mild-mannered Dudley Do-Rights from up north, I don’t disagree. I guess their vast reserves of oil and their free health care have made our Canadian neighbors a little jumpy. I’m not saying an invasion is in the works, but I’d much rather ride into Toronto than Kabul.)
If you’re a woman and you are asking yourself — how come the word “alpha” is invariably followed by the word “male,” I don’t blame you for being — well — hostile. Of course, alpha women deserve to be just as driven, intolerant and unhealthy as their male counterparts. Hey, why should the men get all the heart attacks?
Unfortunately for the ladies, scientists “theorize females may experience a ‘tend-and-befriend’ response, pumping out extra oxytocin and prolactin, hormones that enhance nurturing.” As reporter Becker says, “The oxytocin surge has been documented in animal studies, but is unproven in humans.”
Well, not exactly. I did a little experiment of my own, lacing the chief financial officer’s Ovaltine with oxytocin and she still recommended firing two-thirds of the staff and moving the jobs to Outer Slovenia. If this is nurturing, you can have it.
If you’re an alpha, you may want to focus some of your intensity towards making friends. You may think that you’re not one of the people who need people, but when an even more driven alpha enters your part of the jungle and insists you pick the bugs out of his hair, you’ll wish that you had someone to commiserate with you.
On the other hand, if you value your health, and your sanity, you may decide to remain a beta, a gamma, a delta, or even an omega. Omega is the last Greek letter and omega workers are last to get promoted, the last to get raises and the last to get respect. But we’re the first to get invited to the alphas’ funerals.
Bob Goldman has been an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.