The Alpha Dog in the mirror


There is a student development theory that we call Challenge and Support (by Nevitt Sanford). The balance between too much challenge and not enough was just as important as the balance between too much (and not enough) support. There is a fine – imaginary – line between the two and sometimes the application of each/both is an art…or well maybe a guessing game.

One of my favorite careers was as the Greek Leadership Coordinator on a college campus, about 15 years ago. I worked with a fraternity and sorority community of ~700 students. My job was centered mostly with the men and women who served in leadership positions for the campus community and for each of the local chapters. The work, the camaraderie, the laughter and the crucial conversations we shared were mutually beneficial. They were some of my most earnest students and in turn, my best teachers.

My other responsibilities included working with graduate students. I’d only been out of grad school for just a few years, and I was able to work with grad students. That was a whole different level of teaching, development and modeling. My main grad student was a woman, “N.” I had worked with her as an undergrad. She did a ton of work during her sorority days and as a grad student. When she started I wanted her to advise the men’s group – the Interfraternity Council. We called it the IFC. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to do that. We discussed the fact that she had already worked with the women (Panhellenic) and that wouldn’t provide any learning for her. I knew that she needed to have the experience of working with the men. Many people on campus had told me that presenting to that group of 25 young men was intimidating. I told N that if she could work with that group she could work in many places on a college campus.

In the beginning of her advisership I told “N” to read a tip that was posted on the upper left hand corner of a calendar hanging in the staff coffee room and I said, “It might not resonate this second, but remember that every single time you walk into IFC.”

The Calendar

The tip on the calendar was about animals, maybe an SPCA or shelter calendar:

When a dog sees you they will jump on you for two reasons:

  • They always want to greet you at eye level
  • They are checking for alpha dog

When “N” returned to my office, she wasn’t pleased, nor did she think it made any sense. I explained to her that the energy in that room is filled with students who want to make something happen. They were elected to an office of responsibility in their chapters and on the IFC. They were excited to be there AND they were scared to death to be there (sometimes more than others). They don’t want to make any mistakes and they want to be taken seriously. So when they greet you they are happy to see you/us AND at the same time they think we are there to cause them grief and create barriers. So we have to meet them at eye level and we have to know our place and our own boundaries. Never let them see you sweat. Be confident in your ability and your purpose for being there. Our purpose is to help them and teach them how to lead – sometimes in spite of themselves. Sometimes in surprise of themselves. All of the time it was about THEM and not about us. That is important to remember as well.

Ability and Leadership at eye level

When we are in leadership positions it is important to remember those we are working with at all times. We want to greet them at eye level. We need to remember that no matter how high in an organization we go or how long we have been “doing this” it is important to meet everyone we are working with at eye level. Face to face. On the street. In the moment of now.

Those we are greeting at eye level are both our followers and our leaders. There are things we can learn and knowledge to be shared from everyone in the room. To gain respect at eye level we have to be willing to give respect at eye level. Each of us has the ability to use and improve this relational competency. It can be hard to check ourselves with this at times.

Alpha Dog

The key to remembering our Alpha Dog-ness is credibility and consistency. Power and respect are slippery things, after all, you don’t want to confuse Power with Dominance, a common mistake among some leaders and I’ll talk more about this in a future blog. One wrong turn and both (your personal power and your respect) can be wiped away in an instant. The important part of this Alpha Dog scenario isn’t about who has power or control. What is important is the sense of calm and control we can maintain in the face of adversity or testing times. According to Cesar Milan, a good pack leader exhibits Calm Aggressive behaviors and a good pack member exhibits Calm Submissive behaviors. Our credibility is connected to our consistency and our values.

Always remember that when looking in the mirror you need to check your own alpha dog every time. When you look in the mirror are you looking at your alpha dog? Do you like the leader you see? Can you live with the leader you see? Be the Alpha you want to project and foster the pack.

1 Comment

Filed under Leadership

One response to “The Alpha Dog in the mirror

  1. I absolutely love this post! What a great thing to remember any time we are with people…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s