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What My Time In Yellowstone Taught Me About Leadership

Leaders with certain traits are sometimes referred to as alphas, a designation first applied to the leaders of animals that live in packs, such as lions, chimpanzees, horses and wolves.

The alpha designation is assigned to human leaders with domineering qualities and aggressive tendencies.  Secretly, or not so secretly, those referred to as alphas around the coffee machine or at the convention bar often revel in the title.

But are these intimidating managers true alphas, or just… A’s?

Recent scientific research on the dynamics of wolf packs reveals that alpha animals are complex creatures.  There is more to being an alpha than just staring down rivals and kicking butt.

I had the opportunity last summer to visit the “lab” where this research is happening, Yellowstone National Park.  Over several days, my family and I took in the breathtaking sights of this sacred and unique place – the legendary geysers, soaring rock formations, endless fields of wildflowers and tumbling waterfalls.  We were even fortunate enough to glimpse the majestic wolves that sit at the head of the predator pyramid in that ruggedly beautiful part of America.

Researcher Rick McIntyre has been observing gray wolves in free-living packs in Yellowstone for two decades. Every morning he rises early, uses radio telemetry to pinpoint the location of packs via a radio-collared pack member, and then heads out with a spotting scope to observe the animals. During each observation, McIntyre takes careful notes of the wolves’ activities.

During his time with the gray wolves, certain traits and behaviors started to emerge. Yes, alpha wolves are fierce in protecting their pack from outside threats.  But they are not forceful, domineering, or aggressive to other members of the pack. Instead, the alpha wolf displayed characteristics like quiet confidence and self-assurance. The gray wolf alphas appeared to lead by example, and in most instances had a calming effect on their clan.

To McIntyre, this behavior was not entirely surprising. In the realm of human interaction, think of how an emotionally secure man or a great champion conducts himself. They don’t puff. They don’t attack. There’s no need to prove anything because they’ve already proven it.  In all the years McIntyre has been observing the gray wolves, rarely has he seen an alpha male act aggressively toward other pack members. The rest of the pack is his family.

McIntyre noted that even when an alpha wolf is a major player in a successful hunt and takedown of prey, he might step away and sleep until his pack has eaten its fill.

And let’s not forget about nurturing. Even the strongest gray wolf alphas devoted quality time to pack pups, whether wrestling or comforting the little ones. One might assumption this was the female wolves’ job, but not so. In fact, the female wolves have another important role – running the show. According to McIntyre, females in the packs do most of the decision-making. They decide where to travel, when to hunt, when to rest. The matriarch’s personality sets the tone for the whole pack.

There’s an evolutionary logic to this alpha behavior that offers a lesson to human leaders. If a pack is violent and its members are in constant competition, they are less likely to survive than a more peaceful, cooperative and sharing unit.

So it seems that our alpha stereotype could use some revision, and we can learn how to be successful from wild-roaming wolves. Leading by example, dedication in the care and defense of younger team members, respect for females, and sharing responsibilities – these are true alpha traits.

Couple that with less snarl and more quiet confidence, and you have a winning alpha formula – in the forest or in the office.


 

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