Last night over a dinner chat, a close friend of mine claimed that she’s an alpha personality. We debated if there’s room for more than one alpha in a functional team. I woke up today morning thinking about how my friend and I are both alpha personalities in different settings. A team of alphas can be wildly successful. But first, it’s important to clarify what I mean by alpha.
At the start of our discussion, I thought an alpha is a dominant and aggressive leader who believes in competing and winning at any cost. But this is an incorrect understanding. An alpha is NOT the same as a hyper-competitive person who wants to maintain or enhance their own self-worth with little care for anyone else. Such hyper-competitive leaders may achieve success in the short-run leading by fear, but do not build a sustainable culture of success.
These are leaders you’re better off staying away from when looking for a long-term mentor.
After the discussion and reading more, I realized that the socio-sexual hierarchy with alpha, beta, omega etc. types is a pseudo-science system that categorizes men based on their social position among other men and how well they attract women. We’ve borrowed it from references to the animal kingdom and extended it to explain human behavior in different settings (sports, workplace, bedroom, and more). Since this is pseudo-science, I feel comfortable paraphrasing and redefining.
Before that, a disclaimer. Personality types are not universal across social groups and settings and time. They are a simplified generalization to label a person’s behavior in a particular group setting at a specific point in time. Humans are social creatures who adapt.
How I define Alpha
An alpha personality is a self-confident and charismatic leader who continuously strives to adapt and improve. She has the humility to recognize her weaknesses. In a team setting, she understands she can only achieve success together.
A team of Alphas
I play Ultimate Frisbee for one of the top teams in the country. The team is full of alpha personalities. Leaders in their own areas - CEOs, captains in other sports for the state and country, top real estate agents, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and more. Yes, there are arguments at practices and tournaments. Sometimes they turn ugly because egos run high. There’s certainly significant room for improvement, but this team of alphas has also learned a thing or two about shared leadership* and winning together in situations where the odds are stacked against us. After all, to score even one point in Ultimate, you need at least one thrower and one receiver. Others on the team have to get out of the way at the very least.
The secret to this team’s success is each individual working hard on their own and also adapting to the needs of the team. As a corollary, most of our failures have come from individual egos coming in the way of adapting to support others on the team. Yes, a group of alphas is very likely to have individuals with high egos. But reining in the ego and adapting to the need of the larger group without compromising on your values and ethics is perhaps the secret to achieving that sustainable culture of success.
As an alpha, what should one do to maximize the probability of success?
Rein in the ego. Strive to be the best version of yourself. Recognize the facets of your leadership to dial up/down to complement the rest of the team. Leadership is not about telling others what to do. And it certainly is not about claiming credit and seeking external validation. Build a natural ability to adapt to the needs of the team and make leaders out of those around you. It’s way more fun to win together!
*What I don’t mean by shared leadership 😄
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