True & False Alphas

nature-animal-playing-wilderness.jpgChances are that you have seen it; the Instagram or Pintrest pic featuring the so-called “Alpha Wolf” ferociously baring teeth with some leadership quote across the bottom. Surely you at least casually learned L. David Mech’s early theories about pack behaviors that gave rise to the myth of strong, aggressive wolves rising in “rank” through violence to become the leader of the pack. 

By now, you know that I am suspicious of these ideas. Like me, you may have even read a blog or two pushing back against this outdated understanding of pack behavior or seen Mech’s own about face in more recent literature. But, this piece is not really about wolves. 

Wolf pack behavior is fascinating and I once considering pursuing a career that would have me do such research, but I chose a different path and decided to study human behavior. It is true that our “packs” often parallel the behaviors of wild beasts, but our systems are far more complex. So, any comparison I might offer is nothing beyond a simple metaphor, mostly because it’s pretty sweet to think of ourselves as burly wolves. Plus, an Instagram picture of me baring my teeth is not nearly as cool as one of a wolf.

Let’s turn our attention to the marketplace and the False Alpha. This person, often male, scores supremely high on dominance when he takes the DiSC profile and strikingly low when it comes to EQ (emotional intelligence). He is who Patrick Lencioni describes as “The Skillful Politician” in his book The Ideal Team Player. Unfortunately, this person is often able to manipulate or bully his way into positions of authority. He might even be your boss. 

The False Alpha plays a dangerous game of cut-throat. And while it is true that the more “subordinate” types might turn their belly up and put their tail between their legs, the trouble comes when this person would benefit from their team the most. When one uses fear and intimidation to get ahead, his or her team learns to cower. When real danger presents itself, the team stays hidden, all too pleased to watch the False Alpha get what’s coming to him or her. Once the False Alpha is cut down, the team scatters. 

The tough lesson learned is that when you stab everyone’s back to get to the top, there are no shoulders left to stand on when you are looking for a boost. 

The old myth of the Alpha doesn’t work in the office or in the wild. If you get rid of all your strongest players because you don’t want to risk someone outperforming you, the whole team suffers. Think about it- the leader of a wolf pack wants the best hunters. If the strongest are taken out, everyone starves, even the leader. 

The True Alpha is a servant leader. She or he rises because the team has trust and admiration. The True Alpha wants the strongest to get even stronger. She or he is comfortable when the team is high performing. At the same time, True Alphas recruit a team that intimidates them a little. If you are always the fastest, strongest, or smartest on your team, then it’s probably not a great team and you’re probably not ready to lead.

Being a True Alpha doesn’t mean that you’re a weakling or that you are not fierce. On the contrary, it takes guts to lead in this way, precisely because you will always know that your team can overtake you if you begin to abuse them.

A True Alpha comes in many varieties. She or he can score high in any of the quadrants of the DiSC or have any of a wide range of personality types. The one thing all True Alphas have in common is an exceptionally high emotional intelligence. The good news is that we can build this part of ourselves. In other words, True Alphas are made, not born.

It Is All About Me

I was born in 1982, so I’m part of the micro generation between X and Y that some call the Xennials. I identify more with the Xers, but empathize with the experiences described by a lot of Millennials too. One of the things this generation is most ridiculed for is the so-called “it’s all about me” attitude. But, maybe the problem isn’t that we think it’s all about us too much. Maybe it’s that we don’t think this enough! I’d like to set the record straight here and now: it is all about me.

This first popped into my mind when I was thinking about the well-known Southern phrase, “Bless your heart.” While this is sometimes expressed sincerely, it is more often a way to insult someone without, as they say, “Bein’ ugly.” This reminds me of another rhetorical expression, “If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.” The problem is that my judgements and opinions about another have little to do with him or her and everything to do with me. Just putting a little sugar on it doesn’t mean that my heart is open. In other words, it is all about me.

This isn’t the only thing that is all about me either. In fact, most of what bothers me about the world it’s all about me. When I hold a grudge, the choice to forgive is all about me. When I get jealous about another’s accomplishments, it’s all about me. When I grow impatient at another person’s pace, it’s all about me. When I feel socially uncomfortable about my children’s behavior, it’s all about me. When I’m frustrated with how my wife loads the dishwasher, it’s all about me. You get the picture. My emotions are my responsibility, not someone else’s. So it really is all about me. If I don’t take ownership of that, then I won’t have much to offer the community.

There is more though. It is not just my feelings that are all about me. Whatever circumstance I encounter today is all about me as well. For whatever reason, God placed me there to take action. And I can assure you that is was not so that I could shake my head, roll my eyes, or mumble that “somebody should do something about that.” If it is in front of me, I am the somebody. When I see someone who is hungry, that is all about me. When I come across injustice, that is all about me. If I see that someone else is in pain, that is all about me too.

Just because it is all about me, doesn’t mean that it is not all about you either. In fact, it is all about you too. Don’t buy the lie that your shining light somehow dims someone else’s. I happen to believe that everyone can indeed deserve a trophy. Each of us was created with innate value and carries a divine light within us. Let’s spend a little more time letting ours shine and a little less trying to put someone else’s out.

Investment or cost?

I jumped on a John Maxwell Team mentors conference call this morning as my family and I made our way to Asheville so my wife could speak at a leadership event. As we went over the mountain, the call kept dropping, but we made it to the city just in time for me to catch the tail end of Roddy Galbraith as he delivered some incredible insight that has been bouncing around in my mind since. He said something to the effect of: “highly successful people view personal development as an investment, whereas lower functioning individuals see it as a cost.” Mic. Drop.

I’ll confess, I have spent more time in the latter group than I would prefer. There have been many times that I wanted to take the easiest, cheapest, or most conservative road possible. Sometimes this has been from laziness or skepticism, but most often it has been fear. A fear that it wouldn’t pan out–that I wouldn’t rise to even my own expectations. Well, who would bet on a leader who won’t even bet on himself?! The good news is that I reframed this when I joined the John Maxwell Team. I decided to hedge my bet on the one thing that I have the most control over: myself.

We have incredible power over the outcomes of our goals. It doesn’t matter if these goals are fitness, academic, vocational, relational, financial, or anything else. If we see working out as an investment toward health as opposed to a cost of our free time, there will be a return on the investment. If we frame higher education as an investment rather than merely a hoop to jump through, we will gain more insight. But, so long as personal development is framed as a cost in our minds, there won’t be any return.

This doesn’t mean frivolous spending on every next big thing pitched. What it means is that we step out with an abundance mindset. Real talk: when my wife wanted to hire an assistant to help manage her office, I certainly saw it as a cost; I was afraid that production would stay the same as the expenses climbed. I let fear and judgment assume that my wife would drop to half the work now that she had twice the hands, but she saw it as twice the production because there would be twice the hands. She was living in abundance while I was living in poverty.

How about you? Do you live in abundance or poverty? Do you see your own development as a cost or an investment? I can pretty much promise you that flipping this switch will change your life and that you will never be freer than the day you decide to bet on yourself.

Thin Places

Years ago, a colleague of mine told me about thin places. As soon as she started describing them, I knew just what she was saying because I had visited thin places before. The term “thin place” was first used by ancient Celts to describe places like the isle of Iona in Scotland or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick, in Ireland. The pagan peoples in these areas believed that Heaven and Earth were always just three feet apart, but in a thin place, that distance was even closer. Often these thin places are considered sacred by the various religious groups indigenous to their location and one can find a monument or shrine erected, but other times these locations are plain and unmarked. They can even be dirty or unrecognizable.

I believe that sometimes these places were part of creation; God made them to touch humankind and restore their souls. A thin place is where one finds their Self and is at peace with it. I also believe that a thin place can appear at any location when Heaven touches Earth in some way. Another way to describe this type of thin place would perhaps be a holy moment, maybe along the lines of what the Greeks thought of as a K airos moment. As a chaplain, I am privileged to bear witness to these instances quite frequently.

Many times I have been present as life arrives in our world and when it has departed. In both of these moments Heaven and Earth are just a little bit closer to one another. The joy and sorrow are immeasurable and the experience is indescribable. Although it looks very plain and sometimes appears chaotic, when I stop and close my eyes to pray I can almost tangibly feel the light of Heaven approach. It is not just at birth or death that this happens in a hospital. It can also happen as community gathers together around an ill loved one. It sometimes happens as we grieve or celebrate the news brought by physicians and nurses. Other times it comes as these same caregivers act as God’s conduit to perform miracles and save lives. We never quite know when these holy moments will happen. They cannot be planned or forced and sometimes they are even missed if we stop looking.

It has been an honor to be a guest among communities experiencing these moments in time. I cannot express my gratitude to the families who have invited me in and shared these moments with me. They have taught me more about myself and about how to approach my creator than I ever learned in my many years of training. It is my most sincere hope that I do not ever get too busy, or too jaded, or too tired to stop, close my eyes, and just be as Heaven meets Earth

Grief

The first time I encountered her, I was still a child.

hardly recognizable, she was an ethereal mist, a cool breeze who caused my insides to shutter

she was a disorienting darkness that upset the tangible world of my existence;

what once was, was no longer.

throughout my youth she’d visit again: a beloved pet, a first love, a childhood friend.

oh, how it ached; I thought she’d kill me or perhaps drive me insane,

but I learned that no such relief would come.

as we became acquainted, she became more recognizable.

always coming in like the tide,

with waves that would crash down, disturbing the peaceful sands,

carving small canals into the flesh and scarring the land.

I began to hate her.

white-knuckled, with strained screams of why into the empty canyon,

would only return the faint and futile echo: “why, why, why.”

I thought if I fought her, she would let me be.

but I discovered what the soldiers and crusaders had already seen: she cannot be conquered.

I thought if I fled, she would let me be.

but I discovered what the drunkards and addicts had already seen: she cannot be outrun.

I thought if I understood her, she would let me be.

but I discovered what the scholars and philosophers had already seen: she cannot be outsmarted.

so I turned toward her.

I wrap myself in her cool cloak and ease myself to the ground

she steadies my trembling knees and somehow keeps me warm

as I look more intently, she is not as wicked as she once appeared

in fact, she is quite beautiful; she is merely the shadow of true love,

her name is Grief.

Filled With Power

My daughter recently had the opportunity to sing a solo in a church production. A day or two before she came to me and shared that she was a little nervous about the show. Now, I’ll be honest with you, she probably had good reason to be nervous- in my mind she hadn’t practiced enough times and she’s never had any kind of voice lessons. And this is the first thought I had. I wanted to say, “Well, maybe if you had practiced a little more you wouldn’t feel that way…” Thank God I didn’t blurt out that first thought. Instead, a bit of coaching insight seemingly dropped out of the sky from my training. “Honey, those butterflies you feel are just excitement. It’s kind of like the night before Christmas. Your body knows that something awesome is about to happen, so it’s filled with energy.”

This is a classic reframe. I actually started using it myself before any public speaking that I do. I remember reading about it in Mel Robbin’s book The 5 Second Rule. She explained how similar the emotions of excitement and nervousness actually are- how our bodies don’t really know the difference. And there is some truth to that- Its all the same automatic system, the same cortisol and adrenaline. The parts of our brains that light up just before skydiving are the same as the ones that light up when we get ready to present or have a tough conversation. Think about that- what would it be like to reframe your next crucial conversation? Instead of feeling nervous, racking your mind with everything that might go wrong, what if the thoughts were, “I feel so excited about the possibility to transform this relationship that my body is filled with energy.”

On a spiritual level there is a lot going on as well. Most faith perspectives include ideas about the energy that is around us. Many writers of The Bible use the word δύναμις (dü’-nä-mēs) to describe this energy. You might recognize the word- its where we get the word dynamite. Its most often translated into English as power. As in Acts 1 where the author writes: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Most often, Biblical authors attributed δύναμις to God and even when it is about humans, they are mostly referring to God’s power flowing through us.

Some of the other connotations include ability, excellence, and influence. I absolutely love this word. John Maxwell says that all leadership is influence; nothing more, nothing less. So, if δύναμις is influence, it is also leadership. The great news is that means in a way we are let off the hook. See, we are called to lead, but that is a pretty heavy burden. If others are waiting on me and my ability, my power, and my excellence, then we’re in trouble. But, if I read this right, my leadership is based on the δύναμις, the power of God. I am just a conduit. I am the vessel to transport the dynamite.

My job then is not to lead but to be open to God’s power to lead through me. In fact, if I get in the way, if I try to contain or restrain the δύναμις we’d have a problem. If I or you start to believe that any sort of influence that we might have has anything to do with us then, well we cap the other end of the pipe and the ramifications become explosive. Disastrous.

God’s design has always been flow. What we receive was always meant to be poured back out so that we might receive more. Our gifts, our leadership, work like a stream. If we dam up one side or stop bringing freshness in, we go stagnant, we lose clarity, the ecosystem we once fed starts to parish and fill with the benthos (the bottom feeders).

So, in this season of freshness and newness, let us search ourselves and consider if we have stopped the flow. Are we still asking for more? Are we afraid that there might not be any left? Have we hoarded some for ourselves thinking we might not get our share? Has our ego capped the end under the false belief that we can somehow contain that kind of power? It is my prayer for us in the New Year that we allow the δύναμις to flow freely. May we be filled so that we can pour out. May our bodies tingle with the anticipation of knowing something awesome is about to happen.

Are Their Names Safe in Your Mouth?

I first heard this interesting idiom some years ago when a member of our small group was sharing how she was committed to keeping her husband’s name safe in her mouth. It stood out to me not only because it was powerfully figurative, but also because it stirred immediate introspection; “Is my wife’s name safe with me? What about my friends? What about my enemies?”

I am unsure of the origin of the phrase and Professor Google was not very forthcoming, but there appears to be a consensus on its meaning. When one’s name is safe in our mouths, we do not speak ill of him or her, we do not gossip, and we do not share his or her secrets. Basically, it means we have integrity and character.

Our faith traditions all have much to say on this matter. Scriptures are full of warnings about slander, gossip, and vindictive behaviors. We are instructed many times over to guard our tongues and show kindness to the other. Having high repute is not only significant to our moral constructs and spiritual disciplines either; there are social, emotional, and relational components as well. When we make a habit of honoring another, we train our minds to have gratitude, we find peace in the company of others, and we build the trust of our team. Others will know that we are safe and trustworthy and thus confidently open more opportunities before us.

In this season, let us be a people who can be trusted with relationship. May our partners know that their names are safe in our mouths, may our colleagues have confidence in our word, may we be trusted to honor our leaders, and may those whom we serve know that we honor them on the other side of the door. Blessings upon you and yours in the New Year!