When the Pack Needs an Alpha Dog

There is a right use of power. Some of us are squeamish about exercising power. Perhaps we confuse power with control. It isn’t the same. There are times when it is necessary to exercise power or lose control. We rightly exercise power over those for whom we are responsible. It might be to protect a child or an invalid or to protect our rights from those who don’t respect them.

I once worked in a group which had a leader who was an information expert but not really a manager. This happens quite a bit when a great technical expert becomes a group leader but has never learned how to manage. It happens a lot in IT, healthcare, and sales teams. Technical experts are expected to know things and know how to do things. Managers need to know how to exercise power appropriately and relate to people.

This person left most decisions to the group of a dozen employees. I believe that group management can work. I must admit, however, that I have never personally seen it happen (or even heard of it.) If the pack has even one member who operates in a dog-eat-dog reality, it needs an alpha dog to see to the group’s welfare. The alpha dog can have a style that is participatory or he can be a hard core enforcer, but to be an alpha dog, he must influence group behavior. That requires power, not expertise.

When a technical expert is rewarded for expertise with a promotion to management, her experience is all…well…technical. If this person develops leadership skills as well, then she can exert power. If the technical expert is not a leader, he will not perceive the exercise of power in the work group, so he may not see that there is an enormous difference between participatory management and no management at all. The manager who won’t manage is usually a good employee who wouldn’t dream of dropping the ball in any of his technical tasks, but who fails to even see the ball in his managerial role.

Political power governs the group with no leader. The workplace becomes a series of Survivor episodes and the games tie up energy that could be used productively. If there is no management at all, the group will either get nothing done, or accomplishment will be on the backs of one or two of the group members. Staff may like but will not respect the manager who doesn’t manage. Eventually they will feel resentment.

Employees suffer a lot of unnecessary stress from not knowing how a decision will go and from competing for time and assignments which should be doled out equitably. They feel open to the manager’s judgment but do not feel protected or supported in any real way.

When this team leader says, “Here’s what needs to be done. You all figure out how to do it.” He walks away having no idea that all hell just broke loose behind him. Manipulation takes the place of management, and all sorts of dysfunctional behavior occurs.

The tough nut takes the plum assignment; the narcissist takes a prolonged break; and the dutiful pick up the pieces while trying to avoid being bossed around by those who did none of the real work.

The same scenario plays out in a family in which the parent will not parent and allows minor children to make decisions. The appropriate use of power can steer the family or workgroup into constructive and cooperative behavior. This doesn’t mean being a drill sergeant or throwing your weight around.

Unfortunately, use of power cannot be learned from a textbook or even an MBA program. It must be learned by doing and practicing. When I coach new managers, I teach them to imagine that power is a visible force so they can direct it appropriately.

They soon learn that their imaginings are quite real. Power may be invisible but it is tangible to most of us.

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