from alpha leader to beta leader

#52: Flex your style from Alpha leader to Beta leader with Jeffrey Hull

Jeffrey Hull’s insights about leadership styles

Today’s conversation about leaders and their different leadership styles, wouldn’t be so interesting without the insights of Jeffrey Hull. He’s a clinical psychologist and an executive coach while being part of the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the Institute of coaching of Harvard. He spends most of his time doing executive coaching, working with fast-growing companies and start-ups. While coaching all these different organizations and persons over the last years, he noticed a change in leadership styles, from the old-fashioned authoritarian, directive leader to something else entirely. Combined with the refining of the science behind executive coaching and development, he knew he had to honor that change and write a book about it, which he called Flex.

From alpha leader to beta leader

Jeff saw that a lot of different leadership behaviors were starting to become very effective in companies. The rise of the millennial generation focused more on interconnectedness and networked organizational approaches, instead of the hierarchic and directive approach. Why you might ask? Because people started to understand that the traditional alpha leader – in all but automated or emergency situations – didn’t meet the criteria to lead a team or organization in these fast-changing, competitive and technological times. This doesn’t mean the alpha style isn’t viable at all. It means that alpha leaders should train and develop a more flexible style to get the best out of themselves and everyone else. Once you have trained these different leadership qualities, you can use the right approach for the right situation. Jeffrey used the great example of a surgeon, where on the operating table, you need to be very authoritarian and directive, but with the colleagues and the younger staff, you should listen more and be empathic. And using that flexibility to adapt your leadership style to each situation, is called beta leadership.

The science behind good leadership

As Jeffrey has done a lot of research behind leadership and coaching, I was naturally wondering what sciences influence “good” leadership. It turns out that there are two components that make up the answer to my question.
The first component is the research itself, that focuses on determining the areas that leaders need to develop the most in order to become a good leader. These areas of development vary with different situations and different surroundings. The first component tries to answer the question: “What kind of leader should there be in situation x.”

The focus of the second component lies on what factors influence good leadership and what it means to be a good leader. In that area, there has been a lot of research on positive psychology using neuroscience. That research indicates that in order to motivate people, to inspire change, and become more effective in one’s work, the input you give, should be based on positivism, compassion, positive feedback, and motivation. Not on negativism.

Integration of technology

In order to deliver that positivism and compassion as a leader, we have to become closer to our human nature again, even when the world is changing towards a more digital world. People may fear that technology will replace leadership or coaching activities, but research has shown that these rising technologies are most effective when integrated effectively when you work with real people. The use of technology in coaching has a lot of benefits to support real human connections and relationships, but could never replace them. These human elements will always be a necessary element to create an environment that leverages the capabilities, the talents, the insights, the wisdom of everyone, to tackle really complex problems, that machines cannot (yet) solve. And in order to create that environment and this human connection, many leaders need to transition towards beta leadership. Jeffrey gave me an amazing trick to help alpha leaders transition.

Transition towards beta leadership

Jeffrey finds the most successful way to achieve that beta leadership state of mind, is not to get rid of the alpha leader, but to recognize it comes down to being aware of themselves and their strengths, but also recognizing that these strengths, like being visionary, being directive, being authoritative, being decisive, having a strong confident sense of communication are a limitation. By only keeping these traits, you don’t continue to expand your repertoire. And in order to be a good leader, you also need to be an excellent follower. That means that you can identify who else can take charge and step up and then support them. An amazing tip Jeffrey gave me, which you as well should do if you feel the need to, is to identify who in your team is a successful beta leader. Who is quieter, curious, and collaborative? Who is consensus-oriented, but also very effective? If you know who that person is, partner up with them and give them permission to give you feedback. That way, you broaden your perspective and become a more complete leader, expanding your repertoire.

The paradox of innovation in fast-changing times

The world we live in today is very complex. If you want to be better than your competition, you need to deliver innovative products or services, FAST. You need excellent communication within your organization and smooth cooperation. The thing is… in order to innovate, you need creativity. And you cannot force creativity. Like we’ve discussed in previous podcasts, on many occasions, you need to step back and pause to get the creativity to solve a problem. You might have to take a walk in the woods to increase your energy. There is research that shows that people who take the time to get in touch with nature, to go out hiking are far more likely to be better problem solvers than people who don’t do this. So a flexible beta leader should let go of this nine-to-five mindset and realize that everyone has a different creative time. You don’t need to put in a fixed amount of hours, because taking a break allows folks to become creative in their own time and in the end, delivering better work.

The four F’s of emotional agility

Leaders nowadays realize that they have to work with their emotions and their bodies if they want to become great leaders. Jeffrey has developed a model where he combines the cerebral, emotional and somatic elements you need to obtain emotional agility. He calls it the four F’s.


1 Focus

Focus is about being grounded and present. That involves paying attention to the body and to the emotions. It is also rational to a certain extent because you need to think as well. But there’s certainly a somatic component as well, as you need to be centered and grounded. That is basically what it means to be focused.

2 Feelings

The feelings, obviously, are key to recognizing your own emotions. We always have an emotional reaction to any occurrence. The amygdala is the part of our brain that reacts instantaneously. We cannot control that instant reaction, because it is simply not rational, but we can choose to accept what we feel and then respond accordingly, taking into consideration what our end goals are.

3 Feedback

Feedback is something that happens all around us and is part of biology and social interaction. Our body constantly gives feedback to itself to sustain, for example, our metabolism or temperature. It is essential for our survival. And so should you see the feedback we give to each other in our private and work lives. Research shows that if we can think of feedback as an opportunity to grow and expand, not as a way to punish or criticize, feedback becomes less scary and super effective. Giving feedback can be hard sometimes because you do not want to hurt someone’s feelings when giving negative feedback. A great trick Jeffrey told me, was to incorporate that feedback in a way that’s an expansion of someone’s skills. That way, you can give really negative feedback in a way that’s framed as a positive expansion. And most of the time when a person sees recognition and an opportunity to become even better, they will grab that opportunity.

4 Flexibility

This last F of emotional agility, we have discussed throughout the whole podcast. Being a beta leader means being flexible and adapting your type of leadership to the situation you are in. Being authoritative and directive when necessary, but also creating an environment in which you can step back and recognize other people’s strengths and you can listen with an open and empathic ear.

I think Jeffrey and I agree on a lot of things and I enjoyed getting his insights on the matter of flexible leadership. If you want to read Jeffrey’s book, be coached by him, or if you are simply interested in his work, be sure to check out his website below! I will see you the next week, where we will discuss micro-managers!

qileader authentic leadership

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