6 min read

The alpha argument

The alpha argument

Henry Abbott posted a postulation on TrueHoop this last Friday about the emerging scientific consensus that the alpha dog mentality that has been so long attributed to packs of wolves has recently come into question through the conclusions of recent research studies.

Naturally, this got some people thinking about LeBron James and the Miami Heat (take from that what you will, but I’m thinking any NBA fan or basketball mind almost always has the Miami Heat on the brain now so I suppose it’s not that much of a shock). And of course, any time you bring up LeBron’s decision to “take his talents to South Beach,” a discussion inevitably centered around the alpha dog idea is not too far behind.

The question that was posed was pretty much if the fact that alpha dogs may not exist in a pack of wolves, like we have thought for so long, then does this recent development completely reshape how we should react to LeBron’s choice to join some other superstar’s basketball team instead of lead one of his own.

Now, before we even dive into this, I’m going to need you to certainly toss aside the fallacious logic that if the alpha male phenomenon might does not exist in wild wolfpacks then it obviously means it can’t exist in human basketball teams (or any other non-wolf centered group dynamic), because well, that’s just coming to a faulty conclusion.

“If the alpha dog/male concept does not appear to exist in wild wolfpacks, and human basketball teams kind of resemble and operate as a wolfpack, then clearly the alpha dog/male concept can not occur on a human basketball team and has no bearing on leadership roles at all.”

That’s kind of like saying, “J.G. stinks at writing, J.G. writes about the Thunder, therefore all people who write about the Thunder stink at writing.”

Please, please don’t generalize other Thunder writers because of my short-comings; that’s just one heck of a faulty or hasty generalization that has led you to an incorrect inductive conclusion.

But if you toss that aside, there is a very interesting argument that springs up aside from LeBron, the Heat, and the most likely cause of all of this, the shadow of His Airness, Michael Jordan.

Do you have to dominate the game, your opponents, and even your own teammates to be a truly effective leader?

First things first, I think too many writers are having a bit of a problem separating leadership and dominance. Now while the theory about the alpha dog might not apply to that same pack of wild wolves, the concept of an alpha male, or “head of the pack” is without question a verifiable and proven fact. [quote]

Every pack has a leader. No matter what theory you adhere to, there is ALWAYS a leader in a pack. The only issue is that most new research reveals that the leader of a pack does not lead by dominating the other wolves in the pack, but instead does so by being an example of how to hunt, by providing for the other members of the pack and by pretty much being a competent leader that they can fall in line behind. Otherwise, the rest of the pack will not follow him. It’s that simple.

Thus, the issue then surrounding LeBron going to the Heat to join up with Wade and Bosh and voluntarily place himself behind Wade in the pecking order (if that is how it turns out to be, as so many of us expect) isn’t really about LeBron not exhibiting “alpha dog” behavior. It’s about him playing second fiddle and giving up the role of a leader, the role that all the greats throughout history, throughout the game, have embraced on their way to leading their teams to victory and the promised land.

Because being a leader doesn’t mean dominating the guys on your own team with some iron fist and ruthless will. It’s about leadership itself. Being a leader is about taking the blunt of the criticism when things go bad so your teammates don’t have to carry a burden they might not be able to shoulder. It’s about pushing your fellow man to a height of achievement that they honestly didn’t think they could reach until they saw that you, their leader, genuinely believed that they not only could reach that level, but should. It’s about selflessness for the benefit of the group. It’s about personal sacrifice for the glory of the whole. It’s about being the one with the most to lose so that everyone else has the most to gain.

It’s about being the one to step up and take that shot, not because you think your teammates are worse than you are, but because you know that with the game on the line and the pressure mounting, the only person your brothers-in-arms want with the ball in his hands—is you.

And while I hate to generalize because that opens myself up to any number of fallacies, I think common sense and history would give support to the notion that most significant endeavors by a group almost always require an excellent and resilient leader to help motivate and strengthen the resolve of the “pack.”

Does that mean that this leader has to demean, demoralize and dejectedly dismiss the wills of his teammates, troops and toiling workers around him? Of course not. It simply means that he must be willing to be held to a higher standard and to take on the burden of being the “chosen one” that everyone looks to for words of inspiration, of comfort and of courage.

In the NBA world, I honestly think one of the best examples of an alpha male who does not act like an alpha dog but still leads without question is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant is soft spoken, forms an atmosphere of brotherhood and never shows up anyone (not an opponent and absolutely not a teammate). In no way does he dominate his fellow Thunder players or make everything a stage where he can flaunt his superior ability and basketball might. Yet there was absolutely no question who the leader of the Thunder was this past season and who will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, long before his max contract even came into the equation.

That’s why I believe that the people who have a problem with LeBron going to Miami (aside from his LeBacle of a “Decision” that collectively stabbed all of Cleveland, shoot, probably all of the state of Ohio, in the back on national television for a bloated hour-long special) really don’t care about the alpha dog issue. I think their honest problem with LeBron’s choice has little to do with him not “dominating” his teammates, but in him ceding a leadership role to another player who is beneath him in talent.

Typically, it is the leader who rises above the rest and takes their game to another level, especially if they are the better performers. And if someone honestly, legitimately wants to be mentioned in the conversation as being the greatest of all time, then don’t they at least have to be the leader of their own team? Can the greatest player of all time take a back-seat to someone else on his own team?

To me, the biggest disappointment in all of this is that it is usually the leader who pushes himself to another reality of execution and level of competition because they have to. Because their team needs them to. Because only they can. Because if they don’t, their team can’t win and so they must take their game crashing through the ceiling of performance that was placed above them and extend past that limit into the stratosphere of greatness.

In short, they achieve the glow.

And the sad fact is that one of the most physically gifted, unmatched in skillset and unquestioned talents that I have ever seen play the game of basketball, LeBron James, might never do any of that now in the prime of his career because—he won’t have to. He won’t have to be the alpha of anything.

He can be LeBeta James if he wants to. And it just doesn’t seem right, like the game could be missing out on something amazing, something to witness and behold.

And it just makes me sad.