Is this the end of the alpha male CEO?

A new breed of executives is rising to prominence with a balanced leadership style that could mean the end of the stereotypical alpha male leader.

With 46 year-old Cameron Clyne retiring from his role as NAB CEO to focus on family, and David Jones chairman Gordon Cairns embracing Buddhism to find a more enlightened type of leadership, there’s change afoot in the executive suite.

Craig Dingle, senior business director at recruitment agency Hays Executive, says that there is a change in the type of CEO being employed.

“There’s old school CEOs and new school CEOs,” Dingle told The New Daily.

“There’s more of an awareness of work life balance [these days] and I think that filters down into the staff. It starts at the top and works its way down.

“It is a balancing act for a lot of them. I think they have a wish list of wanting to do or undertake outside interests but it is also impacted on what is happening with the business.”

He says that top executives must now possess many qualities, including excellent communication skills.

A more introverted, quiet, considered, metered, approach is actually also very successful, particularly with proactive staff.

“Above all, companies value a strong leader. Executives who have made it to the top are those who have used their expertise to become excellent operators and combine with their technical skills the highest level of people management and communication skills.”

The top four banks have also recognised a need for a change in style of leadership. In October, 2010, Westpac CEO Gail Kelly announced a target to have women occupy 40% of the top 4000 managerial positions at Westpac by this year. (The bank ended up meeting their goal two years early.)

Corporate psychologist Stephanie Thompson, founder of executing coaching group Insight Matters, says that there has been a shift towards “emotional intelligence”.

“One thing I have definitely noticed in the senior people in large organisations is there are two routes to get there,” she said.

“One is having these great interpersonal skills or being technically very capable, and other is diametrically opposite to that … your bully, take-no-prisoners to achieve outcomes at all costs character.

“The old style – the more autocratic, assertive approach – we tend to notice that more because we notice extroverts more than introverts, but the research is saying that a more introverted, quiet, considered, metered, approach is actually also very successful, particularly with proactive staff.”

Thompson says that the quieter style of leadership was favoured in industries such as not-for-profits, but tended not to win as many points in the aggressive business sector.

“I do think it should, I think some of these quieter traits tend to get underrated and underplayed, but there is a lot of wisdom because someone is not quite so bullish … there has been a bias historically against selecting them.”

This can also be demonstrated in the outside interests of chiefs. While, as Dingle says, outside interests can often end up on a wish list, here are five executives who are doing things differently.

Gordon Cairns.

Gordon Cairns.

David Jones chairman Gordon Cairns

The executive – known as one of the toughest business leaders around – has held top roles at Lion Nathan, Arnott’s and PepsiCo. He decided to change after a rebellion from staff and his kids, embracing Buddhism and meditation. His spiritual practice has given him greater compassion for his staff and a calmer, quieter leadership style.

Ahmed Fahour

The former NAB CEO has attracted controversy for the $4.8 million pay packet he earns in his current role as CEO of government-owned Australia Post. What is less well-known is that Fahour is a founder and patron of Australia’s first Islamic Museum. He hopes the Museum will foster a harmonious society and a promote positive image of Islam.

Ann Sherry

Ann Sherry.

Carnival Australia CEO Ann Sherry

The former prison social worker and union official served in top roles at Westpac – first as CEO of its subsidiary Bank of Melbourne and then as head of its New Zealand operations – before becoming CEO of cruise ship operator Carnival Australia in mid-2007. But it is her son Nicholas – born with Down Syndrome when she was 21 years old – who Sherry credits as being “the biggest wake-up call” of her life and making her a better more understanding leader.


Kerry Harmanis

This lawyer turned miner made $500 million selling his nickel business Jubilee Mines to Xstrata in 2007, but Kerry Harmanis is not your typical tycoon; he meditates, practises tai chi, surfs and plays the mandolin.

Adelaide Crows chairman Rob Chapman

The former CEO of St George Bank quit to come back to Adelaide to spend time with his family. Chapman, who is also the chairman of the Adelaide Crows, rose through the banking ranks to take the helm of St George for two years. He said at the time that he’d “made a lot of sacrifices” over his 10 years as a banking executive.

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