By Paula Hayes
With so many messages out there pertaining to leadership, is there really a new way to define it? In spite of my initial skepticism, Danielle Harlan’s The New Alpha, has convinced me that indeed there is an alternative way of defining (or redefining) leadership, and it is refreshing.
Let’s start with the word alpha. So many connotations surrounding this one word. If you are anything like me, when I hear the word alpha, my mind immediately conjures a picture of a litter of puppy dogs where within minutes of being born, one puppy is always sure to emerge as the alpha, or the leader of the other puppies. Or, I picture someone who may exert more overt and aggressive force to “win” in life; one is who in their less than tactful efforts to force that “win” borders on becoming a bit of a bully. But are these definitions steadfast? Harlan writes, “So what does it mean to be an Alpha anyway? In astronomy, the brightest star in a constellation is typically called the alpha. Likewise in the animal kingdom, the alpha is the most dominant animal in the group. And so it goes in human affairs that we generally think of influential and powerful people as alphas. Let’s be honest, though—most of the time we don’t like these people…”
The ways that Harlan redefines for us the Alpha leader, it becomes possible really for any of us to transform oneself into an Alpha leader. The Alpha social leadership position is no longer based exclusively on rank, title, hierarchy. The old/traditional mode of the Alpha leader often focuses on a set of personality traits, like an abundance of charisma combined with the exertion of willpower to make things happen, and this in the end can cause one to ride that thin and precarious line between being a go-getter and being a jerk. Not so with the redefined, new model of the Alpha Leader. There are three guiding principles, or what Harlan calls, “core beliefs” in her model. The first principle is to realize that “each of us possesses the innate potential to make a unique and meaningful impact in the world.” In realizing this, the self is fashioned into a tool used to shape, for the better, the lives of others. The second principle is to commit to self-improvement; and, if we really stop and think about it, this makes perfect sense. How can we motivate, mentor, inspire, shape our immediate and extended social worlds, if we do not first have a firm grip on the self? As Harlan puts it, “By working to become the best version of ourselves, we develop the foundational competences that are necessary to effectively lead others.” It is really a moral position that the Alpha leader must take; to help others means to first help oneself, and to direct others means to first direct oneself. The third principle is perhaps the most unexpected of the three; that in order to be truly successful, the real leader has to enjoy life!
What Sets this Book Apart
The structure of the book is important. It has three main sections—personal excellence, personal leadership, and team and organizational leadership—and these three sections follow the logic of the three guiding principles. First one must build the self. Once a strong foundation of self is accomplished and self-improvement has taken place, authentic forms of achievement can begin. Organizations that are strong in leadership will put time, attention, and resources into helping employees gain self-awareness and self-improvement, as healthy, happy, stable employees make for better, more productive teams, and more productive teams in turn create more productive, stable, and stronger organizations; it becomes a chain of internal stability from the level of the individual up through the level of the organization. To accomplish this, Harlan focuses on presenting a strong “developmental framework.” Harlan gives the reader lots of questionnaires and trackers so that the principles of Alpha leadership are not just discussed at a theoretical level, but executed in ways that can me measured by the individual, the team, or the company. Additionally, the tools Harlan uses and recommends to track one’s leadership progress is based upon data, is highly customizable to the individual’s starting point, and emphasizes the role of community. The place of community is invaluable to Harlan’s approach; the self does not improve in isolation, but when living in connection with others, and when engaged fully into a community life. As Harlan reminds us, relationship building is fundamental to true success—“A circle of support isn’t built up over night. Cultivating and nurturing these relationships requires effort and time.” And it includes recognizing the role(s) that others play in our support circle. Knowing the difference between “inspirers, mentors, sponsors, reliables, emotional supporters, true peers, and challengers” and how to respond appropriately to each is essential to building a good personal support system, but it is also tantamount to building a successful team or organization.
The Surprising Turns in the Road
Harlan doesn’t give us status quo techniques for mastering leadership. She reminds us life always has surprising turns in the road. For instance, in her section, “Think Creatively,” she gives us the example of two mathematics professors, Nicole and Rachel, who put a jazzy spin on giving a presentation. Instead of the tried and true, the expected cliché PowerPoint, or a handout, these two professors wrote a song at a retreat on leadership. Sounds ridiculously simple, right? But simple sometimes opens us back up to the creative side of ourselves. A key element to inspiring and motivating others is to find that creative spot within. Harlan reminds us, “a recent survey of over 1,500 global CEOS, it’s the most important factor required for long-term success in an increasingly complex word.” So how do we unleash some of that stored away creativity? Go back to the simple. One suggestion Harlan makes is read poetry! As an English instructor, I really must say, this suggestion was after my own heart! But even I, one has written and published literary criticism on poetry as well as original poems, found myself scratching my head at the connection between poetry and leadership. Poems have inspired many things in the world, mostly love, or the rejection of love (how many poems exist on this theme, particularly the unrequited? Oh let me count thy ways?); but, do poems really inspire leaders to inspire others? Harlan resolves the apparent conundrum this way—“In my opinion, poetry is one of the most important and understood tools in our leadership arsenal. Think about it: it forces you to turn on your intuition and start making connections between things, which is something that highly effective leaders need to be able to do, and it often draws on your emotions (which builds emotional intelligence).” My heart was overfilled with joy when I read Harlan’s selections of poets she recommended—Lucille Clifton, Dylan Thomas, and Mary Oliver, three of my own personal favorites. The creativity does not stop there; she gives us other unexpected suggestions to increase creativity, such as taking 20 pictures “of things that you think are beautiful” or using the Reddit.com’s Writing Prompts and writing a response to one and posting it. Leadership in other words is entirely about connectivity! Be it connectivity to one’s environment, workplace, staff, you name it, leaders must connect! And sometimes when those means of connection start to grow artificial and stale, the leaders themselves grow boring, tired, weak, and in some worse case scenarios, even embittered. While creativity may not be the great panacea to the problems of leadership, creativity forces connections between the inner self and the outer world, and that in turn forces leaders to remember their own connections between themselves and others.
In a section, “Practice Gratitude,” Harlan offers the example of Patrick, a friend of the author’s who had moved to Spain due to his job. While in Spain, Patrick grew increasingly homesick, but instead of wallowing in that negative emotion, Patrick went the other direction with his feelings and engaged in a “gratitude project” where he posted messages on Facebook encouraging others to “accept the differences” between one’s expectations and one’s reality. By narrowing that emotional space between negative emotions and positive emotions, Patrick was able to become a leader just through Facebook.
It not might seem at first glance like leadership advice—write a song, read a poem, post a gratitude project to Facebook, but these are the unexpected turns in the road that Harlan gives us. There is plenty there to meet the anticipated with the sheets and exercises to track self-progress in leadership growth, with the data of research studies. But, it is without a doubt these unexpected turns in the road, the songs, the poems, the social media used to empower and not belittle, that leads me to believe that Harlan really does deliver what she promises in this book—to initiate a movement of communal changers. Since Harlan encourages us to read more poetry to become better leaders (of course, that is not all she has us do), I will leave you with a few lines by the poet Mary Oliver, from a poem entitled, appropriately enough, “The Journey”—“One day you finally knew/what you had to do, and began.”