The Alpha Male: leadership, mentoring and new age behavior

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Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Westborough, MA July 2, 2014  By definition the alpha male is the most dominant and powerful in the group.   New age leadership requires flexibility and fluid leadership that must adapt to the needs of  individual officers and meet the needs of a heterogeneous group.  The most successful alpha males may be those that hold back and allow individual officers to define their response based on the tactical scenario encountered rather than a single response template.

A new officer was dispatched to a vehicle on the side of the road with one male sleeping or unconscious behind the wheel. It was after midnight.  His response was aggressive and unidimensional while making contact with the sleeping motorist.  As a precaution the dispatcher had called for the fire department and EMS to roll on the call in case there was a medical emergency.  The officer had been taught to modulate his patrol presence in accordance with situational demands but in this case he did not.  Known as verbal judo, police officers use these verbal strategies during interviewing to maintain control of chaotic scenes.  This scene was neither chaotic nor demanding.

I was told that the bellicose police officer could be heard yelling at the motorist – telling him to “leave his town” and he should be aware of the commotion he had caused by sleeping on the side of the road.  Given that no alcohol or drugs were suspected there was no need for the motorist to be admonished as he was.  Arguably, the motorist should have been praised for his decision to pull over when tired rather than risk a crash by falling asleep behind the wheel.  These kinds of aggressive verbal encounters needlessly put people on the defensive and do nothing to enhance citizen-police relations.  They represent an attempt at controlling a scene when it was clearly not confrontational and therefore unnecessary.  Some believe this kind of verbal banter does more to inflame a scene than to achieve the desired disarming needed to assure the scene is safe.  The patrol presence illustrated in the scenario above reflects an anxious and inexperienced officer who used the color of authority to unfairly intimidate the motorist setting the community policing ideal on its heals.  This kind of response sets a tone for adverse citizen encounters that must be addressed during the field training period – well before he is on his own.

Police officers are taught verbal judo – a technique used to deflect and protect officers who encounter a verbally aggressive complainant, victim, or even fellow officer.  It works with all kinds of interpersonal conflict but is thought to provide tools for police officers to maintain their authority at all times.  Verbal judo is defined as a method of interviewing that takes advantage of the training in verbal discourse and conflict resolution.  Some call it martial arts for the mind that meets verbal aggression with empathy and disarming tactics such as nondefensive recognition of the point of view being thrust upon you.  The case presented was neither hostile nor threatening and should not have been met with the antagonism demonstrated by the officer.  During the field training the inexperienced officer may have been corrected for such a response.  The field training supervisor may have modeled the appropriate handling of the incident using empathic recognition of the plight of the sleepy driver sandwiched into the corrective intervention needed by enforcement of the town by-laws that state “no overnight parking is permitted on town roads”.

The purported competition for “alpha” male status belies most citizen contact as if each encounter calls for one person to win and one person to lose.  It need not be this way.  The animal kingdom bears witness to conflict over alpha male status almost everywhere.  In many instances frank disrespect for the alpha role has led to bloodshed and turf wars in American cities from coast to coast.

There is contemporary leadership emerging among new officers that comes in the form of mentoring and active field training.  The model takes its pages from theories of community policing.  There is no room for conflict over the alpha role and the days of “taking names and kicking ass” are over.  The real battle should be waged over which male is comfortable in a shared alpha role or better still – which male can mentor a young man ultimately handing over the alpha role while at the same time maintaining a cohesive sense of self-respect, firm authority, and an empathic regard for those who might be king.

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