Advice for Alpha Dogs

Alpha Dog (noun): The term “alpha dog” refers, in a pack setting, to the dog that is dominant. The alpha dog is the dog to which other dogs are submissive. Alphas may achieve and maintain their position by strength and aggression, or via social efforts and building alliances.

We all know “Alpha Dogs.” These folks are stereotypical leaders: confident and action-oriented, they blaze the path, lead the way, and “get stuff done.” Alpha Dogs are usually charismatic, fearless, and accomplished.

Almost every business values and rewards Alpha Dogs, but these kinds of leaders may illustrate the fascinating paradox that strengths can become weaknesses. If you are an Alpha Dog your “gravity” may unintentionally shut down dialogue. When you’re under pressure and in full Alpha mode, your colleagues may be unwilling to share important but contrary points of view. You may find that people will look to you for the answer rather than seeking it themselves, which will limit their own development as well as your ability to delegate and get the leverage you need.

Based on our coaching and advisory work with more than a few Alpha Dogs, we offer some suggestions for how to get the most out of an Alpha leadership style.

1— Work hard to be aware of the perceptions and needs of others in every conversation and meeting. This advice trumps everything else. In their zeal to get things done, Alphas can fail to take into account the needs of others—and when others’ needs are not met, they often choose not to follow. How can you become more aware of others’ needs? Try asking. Or nominate a trusted colleague or two to help provide insight and feedback. (And remember the role that King Lear, an Original Alpha, asked his Fool to play; Lear didn’t listen very well, which is why that play is a tragedy.)

2— Recognize when your followers want you to make the decision versus entertaining more debate. This one is tricky, because making all the decisions is a slippery slope for leaders. Ultimately the leader is accountable for every decision, but should not be responsible for making all of them. Learn when to delegate. Take risks, give up control, and consider “going last.” Ensure that people feel heard, even if you ultimately feel you must make an unpopular decision. And most of all, be careful of sycophants and yes-men.

3— Maintain awareness of the sound of your bark and the effects of your bite. Alphas need to understand the power they bring to their position, and that the things they do and say have a significant impact. Don’t be afraid to use your bark to praise, cajole, motivate, and move the “pack” to action. But be strategic with your words and careful with your actions. Your “bite”—when criticizing or reprimanding—can have a far greater negative effect on others than you may imagine.

4— Appropriately balance big picture versus details, and theory versus pragmatics. Many Alphas are Myers-Briggs “N” types, which means they see the answer quickly and intuitively. Team members or business partners may want or need to see more detail and practical application—or may bristle when you dive suddenly into great depth of detail without providing context. How did you get to your conclusion? Have you considered all the possible options? Balance your approach to problem solving and innovation so your team is able to see, and learn, how you think.

5— “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That quotation comes from the Prayer of St. Francis, and even if you’re not a Christian you can see that the patron saint of Assisi was on to something. Alphas often tend to advocate more than they inquire, which can cause colleagues to feel like things are being done to them rather than with them. Some situations require advocacy (“telling” is a very efficient mode of communication), but asking good questions has many benefits, including gaining buy-in, brainstorming better solutions, and deepening a relationship. Be willing to be open-minded, and defer your conclusions until you have sought the perspectives of your stakeholders.

6— Appreciate others’ desires for equality and fairness. Because Alphas are comfortable being in charge, they can fail to understand that others occasionally like to get behind the steering wheel too. Make sure your Alpha charisma doesn’t take over or suck the oxygen out of the room. Give others the chance to lead, and demonstrate that you’re willing to give up the spotlight and the spoils. Avoid giving the impression that you’re in it for yourself: that’s the best way to lose followers. Over the longer term, the most effective Alphas are the ones who defer rewards, visibility, and praise to others. Don’t worry about claiming credit: if your teams are constantly successful, there will never be any doubt about your contribution.

Getting the most out of being a natural Alpha (as with almost any kind of professional development) comes down to staying fully engaged and seeking to improve your self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Pay attention to how others respond to you. Know your weaknesses or derailers, especially under pressure. Be observant of how you are coming across as a leader. Maintain your focus on the insights you’ve gotten from prior feedback, such as 360’s, Myers-Briggs, or DISC. And, above all else, ask for feedback—or engage a good executive coach to help you generate it.

And finally, remember the old saying, “Every dog has its day.” Not every leader needs to be (or indeed should try to be) an Alpha Dog. While Alphas may take to leadership naturally, they will only accomplish great results if they bring their followers along with them. Your time as a leader in any role is limited. You will not lead the pack forever. So be wise in your choices. Be a fearless listener. Be bold in execution, even when tasks seem mundane. Be tireless in your service to the pack. And never forget that one of the most important parts of your job is to find, develop, and coach a diverse number of other dogs to one day take the lead.

We are eager to hear about experiences, whether as an Alpha Dog or working with one.

“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or to get all the credit for doing it.”
-—Andrew Carnegie