The Measure

Exploring what it means to be a better man.

The End of The Alpha Boss

Time to rethink the old archetype

November 4th, 2015

Alec Baldwin was a beast in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” His “coffee is for closers” and “always be closing” lines have become legendary, along with the rest of his one-scene performance. After Baldwin’s character dished out seven-and-a-half minutes of abuse, the shellshocked salesman played by Ed Harris was left stammering: “Bunch of fuckin’ nonsense … treat people like that.”

Unfortunately, treating people like that isn’t solely a matter of fiction. Baldwin’s character resonates because the white-collar alpha leader is very much real.

Perhaps you’ve never had a boss who declared “Third prize is you’re fired” or “(My) watch costs more than you car,” but the corporate world has long accommodated, and indeed rewarded, personalities like the one Baldwin perfected: hard-charging, supremely self-confident, and actively disinterested in other people’s emotional well-being.

Happily, many signs point to the decline of the alpha in the workplace. Instead of an iron fist, the future seems to belong to the soft touch.

Before we start lamenting the decline of good old-fashioned American business practices or protest a world suddenly filled with thin-skinned babies, let’s consider that the “soft touch” we’re talking about here goes back millennia. What’s more, it’s a sign of being a complete badass.


Mindfulness. You’ve Heard of It, Now Use It.

In 2013, The Economist reported on how Google and eBay promote meditation and self-awareness among employees, and how teachers at Harvard Business School expose students to mindfulness as a means of cultivating self-awareness and compassion. Considering that the American Meditation Institute now offers full retreats for corporate teams, the Huffington Post is right to quote The Harvard Business Review when asserting that meditation is “close to taking on cult status in the business world.”

With regard to the fearsome alpha boss, this is meaningful because strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the more you meditate, the less likely you are to scream at people. Ditto running roughshod over everybody in team meetings, claiming teammates’ ideas as your own, micromanaging, driving people to tears, and all other alpha tendencies.

Without getting too deep, meditation diminishes the ego, the illusory sense of self that disables recognition of the unity of all things. OK, we just got too deep. Suffice it to say that meditation promotes mindfulness, and that when a person is truly mindful, hurting other people becomes impossible.

The alpha boss runs on an exaggerated ego, which meditation deflates. As meditation becomes part of the executive toolkit, and with schools like Harvard promoting the practice to students, there’s reason to believe that work environments will gradually transform from hostile to harmonious.


Great, But What Now?

As encouraging as these signs are, they do little to help the worker who currently struggles with an alpha leader. There are plenty of articles online with practical advice for dealing with a horrible boss: understand your boss’ motives, anticipate his or her behavior, document instances of abuse and poor leadership, etc. While rarely spelling it out as such, all these articles share one essential piece of advice: Don’t fight.

I once heard the art of war is don’t start a war – Demoz

We mentioned that “the soft touch” is an ancient method. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. The same goes for the ultimate guide to warfare. “The Art of War” is attributed to Sun Tzu, who lived around 2,500 years ago. Much more recently, a hip-hop MC named Demoz rhymed, “I once heard the art of war is don’t start a war.” Demoz heard right. A good chunk of “The Art of War” is dedicated to documenting how much wealth is exhausted by sustaining an army in the field. The message: far better to never fight at all, and instead rely on diplomacy.

You know that fantasy where you march right into your horrible boss’ office and share a piece of your mind? Keep it a fantasy. Locking horns with an irrational and angry boss won’t work in your favor. Sun Tzu promoted a viewpoint called “taking whole.” Rather than destroying your adversaries and their resources via direct confrontation, it’s more skillful to take control of their resources without bloodshed (or in our case, pink slips). The tricky thing about “taking whole” is that the best way to do it depends entirely on how well you understand your adversary, and—more importantly—yourself.

How to gain that understanding? It requires mindfulness, a complete and total appreciation for everything and everyone in your environment, and how all those variables interact.

How do you achieve mindfulness? Meditation is a great start. If nothing else, practicing meditation will help you remember to breathe deep and stay calm the next time your boss starts in.

There are some excellent meditation apps available for beginners, like Buddhify and Headspace. Otherwise, depending on how progressive your employer is, you might be able to take lessons at work.

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