The First Rainbow Appears
April 14–19, Amherst, MA USA
Seasonal Memoir #69
Part of being a good father is to look at countless memes from your son, and feign both laughter and also the impression that you understood even part of it. For more than half of what he shows me, I have no idea where the humor is. Fair enough. The stuff Tina and I howl at falls like a lead balloon on our kids. The generation gap is real!
One of Zach’s recurring threads is Sigma mentality, which loosely translates to a strong, quirky, fiercely independent person, who takes pride in their atypical behavior. Somehow, this person has unlocked the secret of how to succeed in life, with minimal cost and sacrifice. Oh, really?
The talk of Sigma in the social mediasphere has me thinking about Alpha’s. The popular conception of an Alpha is that of a dominant, extroverted male, one who is often aggressive and obnoxious in always trying to win any given situation. My own experience observing powerful men and women in professional settings, however, is noticeably different from this popular definition. In the classroom, or in meetings, or in any setting where people value thinking and substance over theatrical performances, the person(s) who garner the most respect, trust, and deference, share the following characteristics:
- Compassionate — they are empathetic to others’ situations. They don’t see kindness as a weakness, but rather as a way to include others.
- Calm under pressure — they exude equanimity, which eases tension and anxiety. While they may not always know what to do in a sticky situation, they are confident they can figure out a way forward (with the help of the group).
- Courage — they are willing to stand up and do what is unpopular (even risking alienation or cancellation), when they know what is right.
- Responsible — they will take the blame for failures, even when it’s not their fault, and give away all the credit during victories.
- Humble — they understand how tenuous leadership can be, and just how much they don’t know about life’s mysterious ways.
- Fair — they are seen as someone who can arbitrate a situation, and not fall victim to bias or personal interests.
- Consistent — people know what they will get from this person, regardless of the situation or time of day.
You can find countless examples of leaders with these attributes across organizations, public service, and in everyday life. They are often introverted, and thus quiet listeners, taking in a situation before speaking or acting. They lead by example and presence, but they also know when to speak up. I think of the long-time surgeon on an island, who knows how to bring levity to a tough situation through humor. I think of a former president of Harvard, who listened to grad students’ opinions, modeling an open mind to new ideas. I think of a respected school head who rarely put her foot down when her team faced a challenge (even though she knew the proper path forward), instead allowing the group to get there together. Each of these Alphas could be mistaken as soft, or people who could be manipulated toward a particular outcome. Far from it. They exuded gravitas, and communicated mostly nonverbally by their demeanor, behavior, and carefully-selected words. Their bite, used sparingly, was much stronger than their bark.
Something to think about as we navigate society, the workplace, and the 2024 presidential election.
As I wrap up my year in Switzerland, I can’t help but see the Swiss sharing some Alpha ideals: advanced, but surprisingly rural and unapologetically backwards at times. Humble and confident, but rarely arrogant. Enjoying the simple pleasures in life: biking, skiing, food, hiking, animals, and putting limits to their work. Content with their place and role in the world, with no desire to “win”. I think the Swiss have figured it out.