Leader of the Pack

dogs 1231010 640If you're my age, this article's title invokes a song from the 1960s about the leader of a motorcycle gang. Today, I'm writing about a different kind of pack. 

For those already in leadership positions, and those who aspire to leadership, I offer you lessons from the dog pack.

Sometimes, we humans think we're all that. However, in our interpersonal dynamics, we are not as far removed as we'd like to think, from the patterns found in a dog pack. In the deepest parts of our brains, we humans are still, fundamentally, pack animals. Knowing that, I invite current and aspiring organizational leaders to reflect upon these...

Lessons from the Dog Pack

  • Contrary to popular opinion, Alphas become leaders because of their "soft skills," not their strength, physical dominance, or aggression. Alphas are promoted to leadership by the pack, which follows a leader who is tolerant, empathetic, and oriented to the greater good of the pack, rather than their own position at its head. An Alpha who becomes overly authoritarian, predominantly self-interested, or domineering also becomes less effective, loses respect, and is soon replaced. Alphas hold the reins of power loosely, delegating authority for basic crowd control to one or more "lieutenants," and staying above the daily fray of minor disagreements and squabbles, especially those that vie for elevation in the pack hierarchy. Alphas speak only rarely, and in the critical moments to maintain pack harmony.
    • Human leaders shine when they focus on building authentic, inter-dependent relationships with other members of their teams, while maintaining healthy boundaries. It's the relationships  that matter, the interpersonal connections that establish trust. I follow someone with whom I feel safe, and my following makes her a leader, not her job title. Some aspiring leaders need developmental do-overs on the infant and toddler stages of their early development, when Trust and Independence -- two of 7 Facets of Team Success -- are gained or lost. Without them, these relationships are impossible.
  • Each member of the pack has a position in the hierarchy, but positions and their inter-relationships are fluid, constantly changing. If you think of the Alpha as being at the center of concentric circles of pack members, then the closer to the center -- to the Alpha -- the higher the position. Physical nearness and relationship nearness to the Alpha bring the benefits of transferred power and authority -- the closer you are to Alpha, the more of her power "rubs off" on you, and the safer you feel. Those pack members with aspirations are continually jostling for a better position, closer to the Alpha.
    • Human team members behave similarly, jostling for relationship proximity to the leader. Leaders are wise to be circumspect in sharing personal or "inner circle" information with selected team members, taking care to be even-handed in that sharing. Knowledge is power, always, and intimate knowledge of aspects of the leader's personal life or the organization's vulnerabilities, for example, are valuable currency when traded for position in the hierarchy. If you tell one, tell all, is my motto. Any sign of favoritism or singling out one or more team members for special "behind the scenes" access, and extra (especially extra-curricular) attention, are as powerful as special favors (e.g., plum assignments or travel). All these "teacher's pet" indicators keep competition for position active and edgy. You want your team productive, not distracted by power struggles. A closer examination of how team members and leaders meet each others' needs clarifies the role of Trust, as a Facet of Team Success, and removes these distractions to productivity.
  • Alphas are mostly subtle, rather than dramatic. The Alpha never barks when a low growl will get the message across. 
    • Human leaders with healthy emotional boundaries, authentic emotional expression without drama, and emotional intelligence, receive more respect than those who lose control, even if they later ask forgiveness.
  • There is always another pack member who wants to be the Alpha. In other words, Alphas wear a target that says "come get me." Yet, Alphas rarely have to fight these Fido-come-lately challengers because the lieutenants step in and fight them. This delegation to lieutenants of holding the power line in the sand allows the Alpha to follow-up with the forgiving welcome to a more inner circle of position. (Sort of like bad cop--good cop, but bad dog--good dog. Sorry. I had to.)
    • Human leaders rarely emerge with a stronger leadership brand after they are seen going fang-to-fang with a team member who is vying for greater power. A leader's public defense of his position just never seems to end well for the leader's reputation and following. Be the one who welcomes and mentors; let your lieutenants hold the power structure together...because -- let's face it -- one of them is actually likely to be your successor. 

Who we are at work is irrevocably driven by who we are at our cores. The primal rules of a dog pack come into the workplace, without respect to whether we want them there. Yet, greater self-awareness and team awareness of these and similar interpersonal dynamics, along with their human developmental drivers, dramatically elevate team function.


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Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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