Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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Filed under Diversity, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

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