In this edition of the Eponaquest News, Linda Kohanov shares another full chapter from her upcoming book The Five Roles of a Master Herder. Chapter Four discusses the challenges of working with dominant people and animals, as well as the benefits of employing this potent, directive and protective form of power thoughtfully and judiciously for life- and relationship-enhancing purposes. The chapter also shows the significant dysfunctions that arise when adults avoid or abdicate the dominant role.
“The Five Roles of a Master Herder is based on studies of traditional pastoral cultures that moved with herds of large animals,” Linda reveals. “Because these tribes migrated with their herds—without the benefits of fences and with very little reliance on restraints—they had to develop a particularly sophisticated understanding of leadership. These tribes realized that among horses and cattle, the herd leader and the herd dominant were often two different animals. Humans living and working with unrestrained herds also had to gain the trust of these animals to have any real influence. Rather than over-identifying with a particular role, as modern humans are likely to do, master herders learned how to employ the roles of Leader, Dominant, Nurturer/Companion, Sentinel, and Predator fluidly, as needed. The chapter I’m sharing with you today discusses how to work effectively with the potentially volatile role of dominant, and how to help naturally dominant adults and adolescents channel their tremendous power for benevolent purposes.”
Linda’s fifth book will be published by New World Library in June 2016. Those who attend the upcoming Power of the Herd workshop January 29 through February 1 will receive a pre-release copy of the new book and learn how to employ all five of the master herder roles through horse-facilitated activities and through conversational techniques for human contexts. (Participants who register for this workshop by December 1 receive a $300 discount off the standard tuition.) http://eponaquest.com/workshop/the-power-of-the-herd-leadership-for-the-21st-century/
And for those of you who have attended a Power of the Herd or Harnessing the Invisible workshop in the past, Linda is offering a special advanced Power of the Herd intensive January 22 through 25. Limited to four people, you will practice working effectively with dominant horses, learning the nonverbal, sometimes counter-intuitive techniques that gain the cooperation and respect of these proud, sometimes challenging horses, as well as techniques for building productive relationships with dominant bosses, employees, children, and other family members. (There are only three spaces left, see http://eponaquest.com/workshop/the-power-of-the-herd-advanced-intensive/ for more information and to register.)
Direct and Protect:
Dominance without Malice
Copyright 2015 by Linda Kohanov
All Rights Reserved
Whether you overemphasize or avoid the Dominant role, learning to employ it consciously and judiciously is one of the most important—and difficult—skills to develop. A mature, well-balanced executive, community leader, or parent uses this assertive energy to direct others toward common goals, set boundaries, keep youngsters and adults out of trouble, motivate resistant individuals, break up fights, and protect the group from predators.
In working with large animals, master herders also cultivate a sophisticated knowledge of dominance to handle the flamboyant power plays that aggressive herd members engage to challenge authority and intimidate others into submission. Similarly, parents and teachers must help naturally dominant children modulate and channel this sometimes-explosive force into benevolent pursuits.
For anyone who deals with troubled teens, proficiency in the dominant role is essential. Coaching all adolescents—from bullies to shyer, more sensitive students—in how to develop a mature approach to dominance is one of the greatest gifts that anyone who works with young people can give to future generations.
Here’s the problem: Managing, let alone working for or living with people who over-identify with the dominant role is sometimes emotionally painful, other times intensely frustrating, and occasionally even dangerous. Teaching unbalanced alphas to use their power wisely requires considerable focus, courage, and finesse. In these efforts, you must not only be powerful yourself, you must also model a centered, socially conscious use of this often-misdirected force—even if dominance is not your natural inclination. And if dominance is your native tongue, you must transform your own instinctual tendencies to control, intimidate, divide and conquer into an impeccable source of refined influence. Either way, it may be the challenge of a lifetime.
Classic Dominance Games
To various degrees, naturally dominant people and animals experiment with using intimidation as a management tool. At best, they have strong opinions and aren’t shy about directing others’ behavior. The most dangerous dominants, however, quickly escalate to violence while displaying an outrageous sense of entitlement.
Among domesticated herbivores, introducing new members to an already established herd is dicey when adolescent dominants are involved, particularly at mealtimes. If you feed ten horses ten separate flakes of alfalfa, those vying for supremacy will put on a hair-raising show, rearing and kicking, bucking and biting to claim that first pile of hay.
Within a day or two, the winner of this contest will saunter up unchallenged as the feed cart arrives. Yet if an immature dominant secures the alpha position, he will habitually overcompensate to maintain authority—in part, it seems, for his own amusement. That others respectfully yield as he moves to the head of the “cafeteria line” offers only a brief respite from the mischief this horse can perpetrate. After a few minutes, he’ll likely leave his feeding station to chase different herd members away from their hay, essentially using dinner as an opportunity to play “king of the herd.”
An overly dominant horse will also attack others, sporadically throughout the day, for no apparent reason. This keeps the entire group a bit on edge so that everyone looks away and moves away when the proud mare, tempestuous stallion, or gutsy gelding struts through the center of the herd.
At the same time, a truly committed alpha never lets anyone move him or her around. In older horses, this particular game results in a predictable power play that can be safely used on humans as well. Unlike their adolescent counterparts, well-trained dominants no longer try to intimidate two-legged caretakers, at least not overtly. Instead these deceptively calm, reserved animals plant their feet, refusing to budge when asked. Such horses are not lazy; they’re challenging anyone who proposes to direct their behavior.
If you’re capable of using assertive (rather than aggressive) forms of dominance thoughtfully and unemotionally, this regal herd member will cooperate. (More on how to accomplish this later.) Over time, such a horse will respectfully negotiate with you, sometimes deferring to your lead, sometimes drawing your attention to another option that’s well worth entertaining. However, if you try to beg, coddle, punish or rage at this animal, he or she will resist, and most likely herd you around, in some cases so gently and decisively that you momentarily forget what you were planning to do with him to begin with. Some accomplished dominants are downright seductive in the ways they get inexperienced caretakers to do their bidding.
Humans who overemphasize dominance play similar games, though most of these people are unconscious of what they’re doing and how they affect others. To some high-powered CEOs, intensely autocratic behavior becomes their baseline, usually through a combination of talent for this role, reinforced by parental encouragement, followed by success in competitive educational environments and cutthroat business climates. In this case, the tendency to maintain power by attacking others for little or no reason is so innate that such people often don’t even remember insulting a colleague or employee in a meeting, let alone notice the stress this creates in everyone else sitting at the table.
Naturally dominant children and employees constantly challenge authority. These people sometimes rule the roost unofficially by intimidating the designated leader into submission. But if they can’t get away with overt power plays, they’ll intentionally neglect to do what parents, teachers, bosses, and colleagues ask, modeling the behavior of dominant horses who use the same technique to quietly toy with their two-legged handlers.
Among human dominants, the ability to launch glib and clever verbal jabs at co-workers or family members is a nonviolent way of attacking others for no apparent reason. Such people label anyone who objects to this treatment as “too sensitive” and will sometimes consider it part of their mission to “toughen this person up.”
However, an immature dominant’s definition of “tough” is rudimentary and often counterproductive. In settings where people are free to come and go, many choose to go when autocratic alphas hold influential positions. Community groups, Parent Teacher Associations, churches, and entrepreneurial endeavors lose valuable members when well-meaning leaders and board members cannot modulate the behavior of aggressive, controlling volunteers and staff members.
In the corporate world, large salaries still entice many workers to endure intensely competitive, demeaning bosses. Younger generations, however, are less tolerant of disrespectful power plays and “my way or the highway” tactics. Talented, independent people are more than happy to “hit the road” in these situations, especially when the Internet makes it easier to work from home and start a business online.
Still, some overly dominant executives are quite conscious of what they’re doing, even as they ignore the long-term repercussions. One of my clients found herself sitting next to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company on her way to an advanced workshop. In preparation, she was reading The Power of the Herd on the plane when this charismatic, well-dressed man asked her why she was traveling to Tucson.
“I told him I was going to a special training to practice leadership skills by working with horses,” she remembered. “He laughed and said that he could tell me everything I needed to know about leadership in ten minutes. The man proceeded to outline the characteristics of instinctually dominant behavior as if it were a management philosophy that he came up with! I mean he actually recommended that I pick someone in every meeting—it didn’t matter who, he said—and give this person a bit of a hard time, call him or her on the carpet for something. This way, he assured me, people would sit up, pay attention, and never take advantage of me.”
Instinctual Characteristics of an Immature Dominant
- Uses intimidation as a management tool
- Exhibits a strong sense of entitlement
- Often asserts power divisively, usually by keeping others away from something valuable (food, water, mares in heat, etc.)
- Sometimes attacks others for little or no reason (to keep everyone a bit on edge)
- Pressures others to yield, to look away or move away as a sign of respect
- Refuses to move when others ask
- Herds others with a driving force, most often by pushing the group from behind
- Exhibits tendencies to micro-manage, demand compliance, and control others’ behavior
- Verbally or nonverbally expresses attitudes exemplified by phrases like “it’s my way or the highway,” “you’re too sensitive,” “get your act together,” and “suck it up”
Optimal Use of Dominance
When undeveloped, the instinctual impulses of dominants can be harsh and oppressive. Because they push others around and occasionally launch undeserved attacks, they are the most feared, least trusted herd members.
That the group is conditioned to move away from the dominant allows him or her to drive others away from danger or toward a goal. But no one chooses to follow individuals who over-emphasize this role. Consequently, it’s difficult for them to lead anyone anywhere, especially in novel situations. In a crisis, immature dominants increase panic and decrease thoughtful problem solving abilities. As a result, they don’t function well in innovative settings, and often resist change because reinforcing the status quo offers them more control.
However, when dominance is used consciously—in balance with skills developed through exercising the other roles–it becomes a constructive force for motivating others and moderating unproductive group behavior. Mature dominants transform their potentially explosive energy into a “direct and protect” orientation, deftly employing the role’s divisive force and driving force for specific, life-enhancing pursuits. While their adolescent counterparts are busy chasing herd members away from food and water, horses who master this role use their refined, still potent power to break up fights between individuals (divisive), set boundaries with aggressors (divisive), herd the group away from danger (divisive and driving), and chase off predators (driving).
In pastoral cultures, master herders employ dominance for these same purposes, while helping their younger counterparts convert disorganized aggression into focused, intelligent assertiveness. During seasonal migrations, Fulani herders regularly employ the divisive energy of this role to keep loose cattle out of farmers’ unfenced fields, thus preventing war with the tribe’s sedentary neighbors.
Accomplished human leaders use the dominant’s driving energy to motivate lazy or resistant individuals to get back on task and/or change destructive behavior. The driving force can also be used to help groups stay together and persevere through the uncomfortable by-products of change. During droughts and economic crises, the dominant’s protective, boundary-setting abilities keep predators at bay and prevent opportunistic herd members from hoarding or hijacking limited resources.
Benefits of A Mature Dominant (especially when balanced with other roles)
- “Direct and Protect” Orientation
- Excels at setting boundaries with aggressors
- Challenges predators
- Breaks up fights
- Herds others away from danger
- Motivates lazy or resistant individuals
- Socializes adolescents to use power appropriately
- Directs group members toward common goals
- Protects valuable resources from those who would take advantage
Living and Working with Dominants
Until I learned to work effectively with dominant horses, I had no idea how to use this role constructively, let alone help naturally dominant humans transform their tempestuous power into a conscious, relationship-enhancing force. Due to the nonverbal and emotional dynamics involved, the most effective techniques are difficult to describe and counter-intuitive to the average adult, which is why horse-facilitated learning activities offer the most efficient route to mastering this particular role. After all, if you can set boundaries with a thousand-pound alpha, joyfully direct him to trot around an arena, and invite him to follow you off lead without letting him herd you, it is forever thereafter much harder for a 200-pound human to intimidate you. (Even so, in the equine-facilitated learning field, you have to be very careful who you study with: far too many facilitators model an unrefined use of dominance themselves. Some create activities that actually reinforce adolescent, alpha-style hierarchies.)
Still, there are some skills that can be translated into words. The following four “power principles” will help you handle aggressive energy with dignity and poise, while forging stronger, mutually supportive relationships with naturally dominant people and animals:
Power Principle One: Pay attention to body posture and breathing, using both as a nonverbal language.
Though the vast majority of dominant humans and animals are completely unconscious of what they’re doing, they have a pronounced ability to project their power outward, causing others to yield. From a distance of ten to twenty feet, you can feel a dominant horse pushing as he approaches. Even when the body language isn’t particularly threatening, this animal’s focused, driving energy causes most people to hold their breath, collapse slightly, and take a few steps back. If such a horse is walking behind you, the same force will cause you to hold your breath and arch your back as he begins to herd you. Either way, how you respond makes a huge difference in turning this trend around.
Here’s the challenge: Yielding causes a dominant to take more liberties. A horse who successfully invades your space may start pushing you around and playfully grabbing at your clothes. The next thing you know, he’s ripping your coat off and knocking you to the ground—all in good fun, from his perspective at least.
Tensing up and fighting back, on the other hand, results in a power struggle that can escalate to violence on both sides, resulting in a barrage of flying dust mixed with considerable shouting, swearing, kicking, biting and rearing. This usually ends in a beating for the horse, serious injuries for the human, or, at best, a last minute leap over the fence.
The alternative to both of these disturbing options sounds simple, but it can be difficult to employ under stress: When a dominant horse approaches, you will feel an initial impulse to hold you’re your breath, collapse or arch your back, and either move away or fight back. But you can turn these instinctual reactions around by breathing deeply and standing your ground with a slightly rounded, aligned spine, neither leaning forward nor bracing back. This communicates a centered confidence that neither attacks nor defers to the dominant’s controlling, potentially aggressive intent.
With humans, this posture, and the attitude behind it, are in themselves unexpectedly effective. After all, bosses and colleagues aren’t likely to physically push you around. They’re usually sitting at desks or conference tables.
In setting boundaries with horses, however, it’s helpful to use a whip as an extension of your arm. This allows you to claim your space without touching the animal (not by hitting the horse, but by waving the whip in front of you to keep him from stepping too close). If, instead of using a whip or stick, you make physical contact by holding up your hand, the horse experiences this as successfully stepping into your space. He is touching you after all. If you push against an adolescent dominant in such close proximity, he’s like to reach down and bite you, especially if he reads this pushing sensation as a challenge.
Here’s the counter-intuitive part, especially in training dominants: No matter how intensely they try to invade your space, you must give them immediate positive feedback the split second they back off. When horses make the slightest effort to yield to your request for space, you give them immediate positive feedback by putting the whip in a neutral position, breathing, and relaxing. When human dominants back off, you give them immediate positive feedback by relaxing, making brief, friendly eye contact, and getting back on task.
Why do you do this? Anyone who over-emphasizes the dominant role is used to feeling a great deal of frustration, fear, anger, helplessness, and animosity from co-workers and family members. By the time most people finally stand their ground with a dominant colleague, boss, spouse, or child, they have had it, and are likely to rage at this individual, ostracize, or leave him or her, sometimes all three in close succession. As a result, some dominants never learn the benefits of respecting others. They only know that people either defer to them, or explode and leave.
It’s an incredible, potentially transformational gift to set a boundary with a dominant, methodically and unemotionally, long before you feel rage. In meeting a person’s or horse’s aggressive energy with a centered, confident presence, offering immediate positive feedback when he backs off, you make it clear that you’re capable of standing your ground without trying to intimidate, humiliate, or push him around. In the process, you model an approach to power that gives everyone hope.
Power Principle Two: Differentiate between setting boundaries and motivating others, using the assertiveness formula to employ power as needed.
In one of my favorite photos of the Fulani pastoralist lifestyle, a single herder, surrounded by a dozen cows and bulls, drives these animals across a rushing river while maintaining a three-foot “safety zone” around his own body. Here he’s employing dominance to simultaneously direct the group toward the opposite shore and set a boundary that keeps the animals from inadvertently kicking him, pushing him under water, or skewering him with their massive horns. Clearly, it’s an advanced move. Still, this dramatic image masterfully illustrates the benefits of using dominant energy to 1.) claim your own space and 2.) motivate others to perform a specific goal.
In working with those who over-emphasize dominance, however, it’s initially helpful to separate these two activities so that the difference between them becomes apparent. Dominants are less likely to misuse power when they learn to respect others’ space. From there, it’s much easier to show them how to motivate people using a controlled and thoughtful form of assertiveness (in lieu of pushing others around aggressively).
When setting a boundary, you want make it obvious that you’re not ordering someone else around, you’re simply claiming the physical or emotional space you need to feel safe, respected, and therefore connected to the individual you’re interacting with. Motivating someone, on the other hand, involves using assertiveness to influence behavior, often by directing him or her to take action toward a specific goal. Both activities involve a skillful use of power. You can avoid adding aggression, shame, blame and resentment to these pursuits by using a formula that helps anyone employ the dominant’s divisive and driving forms of energy in a humane, controlled manner:
Assertiveness = Commitment + Crescendo + Immediate Positive Feedback
Because they have strong opinions and an urge to control others’ behavior, you must be absolutely committed to holding your ground with dominant horses and humans alike. If you’re the least bit wishy-washy about claiming your space, they will sense this and use it to their advantage.
In adolescent alphas, the inclination to push boundaries and take over is so instinctual that you cannot rely on words or logic to gain cooperation. You must back up an already strong commitment with real power. This is where the crescendo comes in. People who are inexperienced or afraid to use power often try to beg, guilt-trip, or insult a dominant into respecting them. This is like throwing gas on a fire. People who over-emphasize this role rarely respond to shaming language by collapsing and backing off. (This tactic actually seems to turn an initially unemotional dominant impulse into a mission fueled by rage.) Progressively “dialing up” your power is the only way to show a dominant that you have power and know how to use it without malice to enhance relationships, rather than dominate or victimize others.
A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume or energy that does not back down or release pressure until it reaches its fulfillment. Musicians learn to do this for expressive, purely aesthetic reasons. Most people, however, don’t develop this important skill, though there are many good reasons to use it daily in all kinds of contexts.
To employ the crescendo, its helpful to imagine that you have a power dial in your solar plexus that you can use to turn the intensity up or down as needed. When setting boundaries with dominants, you may have to take the power up to an 8 or 9 before they back off, especially if they’re accustomed to intimidating others into submission. However, you must show them that you’re in complete mastery of this power by dialing the volume up progressively: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on, offering immediate positive feedback the moment they show respect.
The same assertiveness formula applies to motivating others. If you’re asking a horse to trot around the arena, for instance, a gentle horse is likely pick up speed if you gently shake a rope, wave a whip, or use hand gestures (a 1 or 2 on the power dial). However, a dominant horse will initially refuse to move as a classic power play. (Remember, the alpha moves others around all day, but never lets his fellow herd members move him.)
For example, I often invite clients who want to practice advanced assertiveness skills to work with Merlin’s proud, yet by now, reasonably well socialized sons. I can even accommodate different skill levels with this little herd. Spirit is highly dominant and can be overtly intimidating; Indigo Moon is slightly less challenging. Their much more congenial younger brother Orion is also strong willed, though much more polite about it. All three will initially refuse to budge when a new student tries to direct any one of them to walk and then trot around the arena.
Many people initially attempt to move these horses by casually pointing to the rail and then waving a hand while making clucking noises. At this point, even Orion is likely to make an exaggerated, almost comical attempt to ignore the student—looking away from her as if she’s less interesting than the nearest tree and no more irritating than a fly. With a bit of encouragement, the client invariably picks up the whip and shakes it limply, unenthusiastically, whereupon Orion in particular will actually lean backward, planting his rear feet even more firmly in place.
The next tactic usually involves the person’s willingness to wave the whip rhythmically at a 3 or 4 on the dial. This, however, keep the energy at the same level. When a human suspends the crescendo (as in 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4), dominant horses adjust, and “4” becomes the new “1.”
Finally, after further coaching, the client succeeds at progressively dialing her power up to a 5, 6, 7, by increasing the speed and intensity of how she waves the whip as she moves closer to the horse, becoming more demonstrative in her body movements, perhaps even adding cracks of the whip (in the air, not touching the horse) and enthusiastic shouts as she approaches a 10. (Regardless of how much power is needed, the whip must never be used in anger to hurt or punish the horse, in the same way that power must never be used to hurt or punish those we wish to influence. While we may sometimes have to defend ourselves from an aggressive attack, we must give the person or horse immediate positive feedback when he or she backs off. Then, if necessary, we can institute fair and thoughtful consequences that hold offenders accountable for violent misbehavior.)
Because the student’s first request for Orion to walk around the arena is met with the the dominant’s challenge of refusing to move, she is usually astonished that she has to dial up to an 8 or even 9 before the horse finally concedes to saunter off in the most casual way. But the next interaction is even more surprising to the client. Once Orion sees that his student is committed to moving him, and capable of employing the crescendo followed by immediate positive feedback (in the form of putting the whip in a neutral position while praising the horse), the tall and lanky black gelding is likely to trot at 4 or 5 on the dial when she makes the next request.
By passing Orion’s test: by using higher levels of power—without apology or malice—the student thereafter gains his cooperation with more subtle forms of assertiveness.
In motivating resistant employees, co-workers and family members, the same formula applies, though using a whip is not likely to win anyone over. Instead, the crescendo happens through various steps that progressively increase power and influence to direct someone to carry out a task. Here a “1” on the “power dial” might involve texting the person to check in or remind him of a deadline, then 2.) texting again with a bit more urgent or assertive language, then 3.) calling him if there’s no response, then 4.) stopping by his office to check in on progress, then 5.) calling him into your office for a formal meeting, then 6.) engaging a more serious yet still private “difficult conversation” meeting to up the ante, then 7.) formally writing him up, then 8, 9, 10.) moving through steps for possible dismissal.
At any time during this sequence, it’s important to offer immediate positive feedback when the person cooperates, in the form of relaxed, gently approving eye contact and a professional statement like “looks good, we’re making some progress here.” Immediate positive feedback also involves your ability to move forward with a congenial attitude, without holding a grudge, even if you have to dial up above a 6.
These days, far too many supervisors tend to text and text and text again, then get frustrated and perhaps explode. This is like trying to move Orion by limply waving the whip for five minutes, then suddenly racing toward the horse, cracking the whip and shouting obscenities (2, 2, 2, 2, 10!!!!). If you stay at a 2 and then suddenly blast your power above an 8, even a dominant person will think you’re hysterical or unnecessarily abusive. Dialing your power up progressively without adding rage and insults to the mix allows you to engage the upper range of intensity, if necessary, in a way that feels clean, fair, and controlled.
As with Orion, this formula, when used mindfully and masterfully, creates greater cooperation and self-motivation in others over time, freeing leaders up for other pursuits.
But why must we distinguish between boundary setting and assertiveness? There are three reasons actually: 1.) The goals are very different. 2.) The timing and the positive feedback are different. 3.) The emotions that arise are different.
First of all, in setting a boundary you’re claiming the space, time, or consideration you need to be effective, not directing someone else’s behavior. (In the case of resources, such as money or property, you’re protecting what you already have, not trying to acquire more.) The split second someone backs off, you reward him or her with relaxed, appreciative engagement before getting back on task. When someone repeatedly or aggressively steps over your boundaries you will feel anger.
When you’re motivating someone else to perform a goal, you’re often pushing his boundaries for a specific purpose, sometimes asking him to step outside his comfort zone, sacrifice some of his resources, or compromise his need for personal space, time, etc. in order to serve the needs of the organization, family, or culture at large. Standard positive feedback involves some kind of reward or recognition when the goal is completed. But on more complex, long-term projects, it’s helpful to engage immediate positive feedback for efforts to get started, endure, and trouble shoot. This means that as the motivator, you’re adding enthusiasm, appreciation, and perhaps additional training along the way.
In fact, unless an already-motivated person is taking a break, the “relaxed connection” feedback used in boundary setting is counterproductive. For instance, in motivating a horse to move from a walk to a trot, appreciation must be communicated when he makes the transition without dropping the energy level, or the horse will fall back into the walk. And with someone who’s reluctant to perform a necessary yet boring, tedious task, he or she doesn’t need any excuse to relax and take a break; this person needs to be energized, probably requiring a more assertive crescendo to get started, boosted by enthusiasm and even a bit of humor from you to lighten the load.
In the context of assertiveness/motivation, if someone drops the ball or needs constant attention to stay on task, you will feel frustrated because you’ve “hit the wall” in getting him to do his job in general or take specific action on a previously agreed upon goal.
Power Principle Three: Do NOT take dominance games personally.
Once again, this is counterintuitive. It’s natural to feel insulted or even betrayed by a dominant’s willful behavior, public challenges, and overt or covert refusals to cooperate. Most unnerving, of course, is that intense, oddly instinctual strategy of attacking others for little or no reason.
In working with people who over-emphasize this role, however, it’s important to realize that the power plays are endless. If you understand the primal roots of this behavior, at least you won’t be shocked by it. As a result, you’ll be much more likely to remain thoughtful in these situations and minimize the damage.
An accomplished supervisor can modulate the behavior of dominant staff members, but unbalanced alphas will unleash the same predictable forms of mischief on others when the leader leaves the room. These unproductive, often hurtful, yet still predictable games are unlikely to fade in any organization or family until naturally dominant individuals learn how to use the strengths of this role in balance with the skills endemic to the other roles. But even with skillful coaching, it can take months or even years for such people to transform their fiery instinctual impulses into a mature, refined, fully conscious source of power.
In the meantime, it’s important to change your own response to the dominant’s more outlandish behavior. If an alpha-style boss jumps all over you for some minor misunderstanding, there’s no need to spend a single sleepless night wondering why he doesn’t respect you. Resist the urge to spiral down into the all-too-common thought loop: “I’ve been so good to this person, so loyal and helpful, and then what does he do? He turns around and insults me in front of the entire staff, the ungrateful bastard.”
With mal-socialized dominants, it’s not about you. They’ll target someone else for similar treatment next week. And in doing so, they’ll continue to lose trust and alienate themselves from the group—until they’re willing to alter the destructive by-products of what is potentially an incredible talent for directing and protecting others.
Here’s another odd feature of dominant behavior that confuses people to no end. Let’s say a colleague named Henry rakes you over the coals for an easily correctable, unintentional mistake. You might think he’s at war with you for some indecipherable reason, or maybe he just plain doesn’t like you. Then a few days later, he vehemently defends you when someone from another department questions your judgment. From a dominant’s perspective, this makes perfect sense. Henry is doing what dominants do well: protecting a member of his herd (though he also reserves the right to launch unexpected attacks on those same herd members to keep them in line).
I experienced something very much like this at an equestrian conference a few years back. One of the clinicians, let’s call him “Jake” is a talented, quite famous horse trainer. Admittedly an alpha-style leader himself, he wasn’t shy about challenging me on several occasions during informal gatherings and conversations. However, during a large exhibition, a member of the audience decided it would be fun to try to fluster and possibly discredit me. The man actually interrupted, and then tried to hijack, my presentation by questioning a minor feature of an as-yet uncompleted demonstration.
Though this sort of thing rarely happens, I’ve learned to expect such behavior from competitive (no-doubt naturally dominant) clients and spectators. Luckily, I sincerely enjoy debating the finer points of subjects I care about, and can usually turn a challenge into a good natured opportunity for everyone, including me, to learn something new.
Still, before I could fully address this person’s comments, Jake jumped up from his chair, stepped in front as if shielding me from a possible attack, and defended my approach with gusto. I was shocked at time. But from what I now know about the instinctual characteristics of dominants, the tendency to alternately provoke and protect people is both common and predictable.
Power Principle Four: Resist the temptation to enlist a dominant to compensate for others’ avoidance of this role. Instead, coach everyone in the appropriate use of power.
Many people abdicate the dominant role because they’re uncomfortable with power. As I mentioned in the Preface to this book, that was certainly my inclination. When promoted to program director, I relied on the station manager to step in when my congenial, inspirational approach wasn’t strong enough to handle conflicts between staff members and get uncooperative employees back on track.
However, when I started my own business, this unbalanced leadership style became more of a liability, and I truly learned what kind of trouble I could get into if I didn’t employ the strengths of the dominant role. I wanted everybody to get along. I wanted people to be self-motivated and employ all the wonderful emotional and social intelligence tools we were learning from the horses. But staff members would have conflicts. Because I refused to step in soon enough and assertively enough, the animosity between two people would sometimes escalate beyond the point of no return as they said things to each other that could never be taken back. Factions would emerge as other staff members took sides. This created an increasingly toxic working environment. Finally, I would have to let someone go. In effect, by refusing to use dominance, I would eventually have to perform the predatory act of firing an otherwise talented staff member.
Another classic dilemma ensues when a leader can’t motivate resistant employees. Sometimes this is related to the “refusal to move” power play enacted by a naturally dominant staff member. Just as often, the lack of motivation stems from the fact that we all encounter tedious parts of our jobs—boring or challenging functions that we’d rather avoid. If a kind-hearted boss doesn’t know how to get someone back on task, the effect on other staff members is significant. Some people pick up the slack. Others become more complacent. Over time, frustration and resentment rise as efficiency and responsibility fall.
A common fix involves hiring a dominant middle manager. However, because everyone relies on this person to be the disciplinarian, the entire organization actually supports him in over-emphasizing the role. This, in turn, encourages the shadow side of the dominant to become more pronounced. Over time, he’s increasingly portrayed as a Neanderthal, an egotistical maniac, or simply “the bad guy.”
People who over-identify with the Leader, Sentinel or Nurturer/Companion roles invariably neglect to develop the skills associated with dominance. As a result, they’re much more likely to enter into an unholy alliance with a monster they create. Someone naturally talented in the divisive energy that can break up fights and the driving energy that can break through resistance is susceptible to becoming a scapegoat for the naïve, irresponsible behavior of those who abdicate this role. People who refuse to use dominance need a dominant to do their dirty work for them. And while they may appreciate the function he performs, they also love to hate him.