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Series: Lessons from Nature Part 1

The Myth of the Alpha Dog

"To be the leader of the pack, to maintain order and discipline and obedience, was the first law of club and fang… this resulted in severe punishment toward any dog who dared to violate the law. The law was not always just, but it was certain. The strong ate the weak, and the strong, in this case, was Buck." - Jack London, The Call of the Wild. (London, 1903)

In Jack London's "Call of the Wild," the myth of the alpha dog has been perpetuating a misconception of power and influence for over a hundred years, shaping our culture in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. As part of the Middle School curriculum, the book was assigned for students to read. However, even at a young age, I found it unsettling. Discovering the truth about alpha dogs I found it counter to the canine character, Buck. In fact, a wolf pack’s leadership role is fulfilled by a pair of wolves known as the alpha pair. While the alpha pair does lead the pack in finding locations to hunt and raise their young. Their most important role lies in protecting their pack from external threats. The functionality of the wolf pack relies on the alpha pair's ability to assess and avoid dangers for their team.

Interestingly, the importance of teamwork is also demonstrated in the world of sled dogs. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,000-mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness, is a grueling test of endurance and teamwork for both dogs and humans. The sled race teaches valuable lessons about the importance of teamwork, including the need for clear communication, trust, and mutual support. Just like in a wolf pack, sled dogs all have different roles to play, and they work together to accomplish a common goal. In the office, we can learn from the example of these amazing animals and strive to work together in a similar way, supporting each other and contributing to the success of the team. (Stallard, 2018)

The myth of the alpha dog has led to a culture that highly regards the loudest, often offensive, and dominant individuals as the most valuable. Erasing the fact a pair of alpha wolves are tasked with protecting their pack, they will lay down their lives for the survival of their pack. Alpha means making the ultimate sacrifice to achieve the greater good for the team. If I asked my readers to write a list of traits describing their office’s Alpha employee, I’m willing to bet self-sacrifice doesn’t make the cut, hahaha.

Chamorro-Premuzic writes, "Alpha leaders are more likely to be overconfident, take unnecessary risks, and engage in impulsive behaviors that can lead to negative business outcomes” (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2018)

Organizations prioritizing collaboration and teamwork tend to be more successful than those promoting competition among individual employees. This is because companies that encourage internal competition for promotions, raises, or recognition can face a host of issues. In this kind of environment, employees may become too preoccupied with their personal accomplishments rather than the company's overall objectives. They may also be hesitant to share their ideas, which can hinder creativity and innovation. Furthermore, they may not be as committed to the company's clients, which could negatively impact revenue and client diversity. (Morgan, 2014)

Three small but mighty things you can do today to end the Alpha dog mentality and support innovation in your workplace:

1. Encourage open communication: Create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions. Encourage active listening and constructive feedback to create a culture of respect.

2. Practice shared leadership: Share leadership responsibilities and distribute power among team members. This will foster a sense of ownership and investment in the team's success.

3. Foster a growth mindset: Encourage team members to embrace challenges and learn from failures. Create a culture of continuous learning and improvement by celebrating successes and encouraging experimentation and risk-taking.

In summary, beloved workplace legend, Simon Sinek, states, "When we feel like we belong, we are more willing to take risks, we are more willing to experiment, and we are more willing to explore and be vulnerable in front of each other" (Sinek, 2018). Let’s stop creating a culture that values dominance over teamwork. Successful teams, whether a wolf pack in the wild or a sales team in the workplace, rely on collaboration, communication, and shared leadership. By encouraging open communication, practicing shared leadership, and fostering a growth mindset, we can create a culture of respect, innovation, and success. Let us honor and embrace the power of teamwork.

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