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Debunking the myth of the Alpha leader

Victoria Rothe, Podcast host and Founder, The Leadership Blog Alpha: - Having the highest rank in a dominance hierarchy - The brightest star in a constellation There are many big cats out there, but it’s the lion the has caught public imagination as the leader of the pack. So why is the lion a king? […]

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Victoria Rothe The Leadership Blog
Victoria Rothe, podcast host and founder, theleadershipblog.uk
Victoria Rothe, Podcast host and Founder, The Leadership Blog
Alpha:
- Having the highest rank in a dominance hierarchy
- The brightest star in a constellation

There are many big cats out there, but it’s the lion the has caught public imagination as the leader of the pack. So why is the lion a king?

  • Strength: lions fear few enemies in their natural habitat of the open savannah, their only real competitor for food being the hyena
  • Order: like other rulers, lions maintain order and disobedience within the pride is punished
  • Power: lions maintain control over their territory and stamp their dominance; a lion is a creature in command
  • Magnificence: the physical strength of the lion is reflected in its compelling demeanour

When thinking of human leaders, it is true that the traditional image of a strong, powerful ruler unafraid to dominate stands. However, as the world continues to diversify our image of a leader become more colourful and fragmented.

What role does a leader’s personality play today?

What is Alpha behaviour?

Common interpretations of Alpha behaviour include:

  • aggression
  • anger
  • self-centred nature and actions
  • strong physical presence
  • consistent reinforcement of own superior status

What isn’t Alpha behaviour?

The following may form a part of an Alpha individual’s personality, but do not in themselves form attributes of an all-out Alpha:

  • strength
  • self-respect
  • self-belief
  • strong beliefs / views
  • ability to hold position in an argument

The trouble with Alphas

Would you want the the classic Alpha as a boss in your group or organisation?

Acting dominant, unyielding and ruthless might have got you to the top some decades ago, but these qualities are quickly falling from grace.

Seeing classic Alphas in leadership positions may also prohibit better yet less aggressive candidates from expressing interest in moving up.

Is being Alpha all about aggression?

Alpha is all about aggressive dominance.

In the animal kingdom, this is exhibited in the form of physical aggression. In the workplace, this may be seen by way of heavy top-down management, bullying or general domineering behaviour.

A certain degree of aggression is an inevitable part of dominant behaviour, which calls on the leader to put their ego first.

Trump: an Alpha in power

Redefining the Alpha

Whilst dominance and aggression have long been hallmarks of Alpha behaviour, it may be that we have misinterpreted the Alpha all along.

The man who has helped cement the current understanding of Alpha is Frans de Waal, a leading primatologist and author of ‘Chimpanzee Behaviour’.

However, he has recently voiced the fact that the term has been misinterpreted as a byword for brutish and harsh.

“Alpha chimpanzees are impressive and intimidating leaders, but the majority of those who rise to the top are also generous and kind to others because they know respect will help them maintain their position at the top.”

Frans de Waal

How does this translate to modern leadership theory?

We are living in times where age-old notions of power and strength find themselves radically re-defined.

Whilst there are still examples where unyielding behaviour may find success, these are getting fewer and further between.

Prominent examples of community-driven leaders coming more to the fore, adding much-needed variety to the very definition of leadership with them.

The bottom line

An Alpha lion is built for one-off stand-offs. This behaviour cannot be sustained in a social environment. Politics beat power in the long game.

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