Chances 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 Like me, you may have even read a blog or two pushing back against this outdated understanding of pack behavior or seen Mech’s own about face in more recent literature.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.