In her book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson appeals to the “social hierarchy and vocabulary of wolves and canines” for a vision of what authentic leadership might look like in the human hierarchy.

Wilkerson suggests that, true leadership does not depend upon position, status, or title. It depends instead upon what she calls being a “true alpha.” She writes,

True alphas command authority through their calm oversight of those who depend upon them. They establish their rank early in life and communicate through ancient signals their inner strength and stewardship, asserting their power only when necessary. An alpha generally eats first, decides when and who will eat afterward, inspires trust through firm shepherding for the safety and well-being of the pack. An alpha is not necessarily the biggest or fastest but usually the innately self-assured one who can chastise a pack member with a mere look or a low voice. A true alpha wields quiet power judiciously apportioned.

You know that you are not seeing a true alpha, or, put another way, you have encountered an insecure alpha, if he or she must yell, scream, bully, or attack those beneath them into submission. That individual does not have the loyalty and trust of the pack and endangers the entire group through his or her insecurities, through his or her show of fear and lack of courage.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origin of our Discontent. NY: Random House, 2020, 203

The “true alpha”:

  • exercises calm oversight
  • asserts power only when necessary
  • inspires trust
  • works for the safety and well-being of the pack
  • wields quiet power judiciously apportioned

But the thing that is really interesting in Wilkerson’s description is how she portrays “an insecure alpha.” An “insecure alpha:”

  • shouts
  • bullies
  • attacks those beneath them
  • demands submission

An “insecure alpha” is driven by:

  • insecurity
  • fear
  • lack of courage

I would add to Wilkerson’s description that an “insecure alpha:”

  • is demanding and pushy, lacking the gentleness and balance that are characteristic of a “true alpha”
  • does not listen to the pack
  • operates in splendid isolation sending down edicts from on high rather than engaging from a place of genuine listening and connection with the pack

A “true alpha” does not need to assert authority. Authority is granted to the “true alpha” by the pack which is inspired to trust the leader because it intuitively senses the leader’s deep compassion, genuine understanding, and true wisdom. The authority of the “true alpha” is always granted, never demanded by the leader or expected merely on the basis of hierarchy.

The “true alpha” has nothing to prove. Leadership is not a status symbol or a position of privilege from which the leader seeks to establish dominance. A “true alpha” is open, flexible and responsive, willing to change position when new insight becomes available.

The qualities of a “true alpha” are only available to a leader who has done the deep inner work of confronting their demons and facing the dark shadow side of their own being. “True alpha” leadership is not a matter of technique or training; it is possible only for the leader who has taken a long honest look in the mirror and is willing to see the insidious machinations of the ego at work and to let go of the need to build an identity out of their function in the pack.

The pack will always recognize when they are being led by “an insecure alpha.” In the worst case, a pack will turn upon and devour an “insecure alpha” leader. In the best case, the pack will withdraw, increasingly leaving the “insecure leader” to operate in a vacuum from which there may be no recovery. Neither outcome is beneficial to the pack or the “insecure leader.”