Alpha, Beta or Both?

It’s hard not to notice the alpha males among us or, in some cases, the alpha females. By that I mean those who are attractive, confident, assertive, and usually holding the highest ranking position of authority.

As one who typically hasn’t had those qualities, I used to envy their swagger as well as their ability to get things done by wielding their power and control.

Today, I’m not as convinced being an alpha is a good thing, or even something I aspire to be. It seems to me that an alpha persona might just come with a lot of pressure and too many expectations. This was reinforced for me by a number of recent situations.

The first was a comment by an elected official who had just participated in a community building workshop I had facilitated. When participants were asked to provide feedback as to how they felt about the workshop and its messaging that focused on shared leadership and collaboration, he was the first to speak up. He described his feeling about the day as being “therapeutic”. 

Not quite sure how to respond, given as how therapeutic isn’t a typical response, I asked him if he could share more. He went on to explain that he was under the gun to deliver on plans for the development of a major facility within a very short time frame. As something of an alpha male, he had shouldered all of the responsibility for meeting the deadline. Not surprisingly, coming into the workshop he was feeling quite stressed and overwhelmed. By the end of the day however, he realized he would be much better off to leave his alpha, lone wolf way of working, and instead distribute the leadership and decision making among the citizens of his community. Realizing he could share the burden, led to him feeling a sense of relief that was quite therapeutic.

In another case, I was able to see the pressure of an alpha male working hard to retain his status and his position as a senior administrator. While it appeared he had adopted a somewhat aggressive command-and-control approach for keeping himself at the top, it perhaps wasn’t always the most inspiring approach for those who worked for him.

In the animal world, the alpha male often has to physically fight to remain “top dog”. In human settings the fights are more likely to be manifested in acts reflecting poor listening and information dissemination, dismissive behavior, abrupt language, or avoidance of issues.

While an alpha male is more likely to send memos beginning with “It is mandatory” or to say, “I’m in charge and that’s how I want it to be done”, most people are better led by someone who is more “beta”. A beta approach would reflect sensitivity toward others, strong communication, collaboration, and compromise. This approach would utilize and showcase the strengths of other team members and is far more likely to generate productivity, innovation, effectiveness, and happier teams. 

As with most issues these days, it isn’t likely there is ever one best way. Perhaps instead we all need to practice a hybrid approach that brings the best of both alpha and beta to our organizations, businesses, and communities.   

Posted on 09-26-10

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