Alpha Leadership

Alpha Leadership

Most of us have been in a setting where a manager or coach encourages the team leader to “wolf up” and take aggressive action. We often associate the “alpha” leader as loud, outspoken, dominant, and even outright aggressive.

Having recently welcomed a German Shepherd pup to our family, the need to establish alpha leadership is an important part of proper integration into the family’s social structure. Like most, I assumed establishing my position as “alpha” required exhibiting stern dominance with forced establishment. A German Shepherd is one of the most intelligent, energetic, and loyal of dog breeds; typically bred to “work” – this canine is thirsty for correct alpha leadership through a respect that is earned. So as I researched the common characteristics of “alpha” I was amazed at how often this trait is romanticized and completely misunderstood.

The New York Times published a revealing article about wolf researcher Rick McIntrye based on his observations on the true behaviors of wolf pack leaders in Yellowstone National Park. McIntrye concluded that characteristics of the superior alpha wolf included:

  • Quiet confidence, silent self-assurance; leading by example
  • Rarely exhibiting any aggression toward the other pack members

This does not mean the alpha is not tough when needed, but the lesson is a pack that is more cooperative and less violent among one another is far more likely to survive and thrive than those competing with one another.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels from Mr. McIntrye’s research to one of the leading guides to corporate leadership; Jim Collins’ Level 5 leadership. Collins’ impressive research identified the unique characteristics of “great” leaders in his bestselling book Good to Great. Like Mr. McIntrye, Collins observed and interviewed thousands of “alpha” leaders at the helm of taking the organization from good to great. Through Collins’ work, the characteristics of a superior Level 5 leader are summarized as having:

  • A blend of fierce will and personal humility
  • Highly ambitious for their company, and rarely allow their ego to come in the way of organization’s success

It’s hard to escape the conclusion of the behavioral similarities between wolves and humans. Our view of great corporate leadership draws comparisons to the superior “alpha” wolf in the thriving packs of Yellowstone.

Since we typically misconceive the need to establish alpha with dominance, we can certainly learn many lessons that come with training the canine with proper leadership – so much that most of the positive training practices can be applied to that of good managerial practices, for example:

We all know strength impresses us – but kindness, confidence, and humility are what we remember best. Dominance may return short-term results, but the traits of great alpha leaders provide sustained results beyond one’s ego for the greater good of the organization, or pack.

Rather than reading the latest leadership rhetoric, could we possibly learn more useful lessons if we took the time to study how nature intended us to lead? Dogs are certainly a man’s best friend and make us better people… and perhaps now even better leaders.

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