The Frightening Power of Alpha Leadership

Men and women behave very differently when they first enter a boardroom.  The men identify the alpha person in the room, then position themselves in relation to the alpha.  Every man will take a seat indicative of his perceived rank in the hierarchy.

Once the meeting begins, rank is confirmed by who speaks the most quickly and confidently. Extroverts and quick processors have an edge.  Introverts and slow processors are at a disadvantage.

Women are expected to find their place in this patriarchal ranking system.  That’s why there are books targeted to women with titles like, Lean In and, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.  If they refuse to play by the rules, the women are summarily dismissed.

Other even more unsavory determinations are also made when men first walk into a room.  If they are straight males, they are inclined to sexualize females.  There are exceptions.  Men do not sexualize alpha females.  In fact, they run in the opposite direction.  Castration anxiety is real.  If the woman is not an alpha, however, the men will be inclined to sexualize her at the same time as they rank the woman in the power hierarchy.

It is important for males to acknowledge this reality, because if it is not acknowledged it can wreak havoc.  If men had good role models and appropriate instruction in their formative years, they quickly stop themselves from sexualizing women, almost before they start. They have been made aware of these male tendencies and of their agency to refuse to empower them.

But those are some awfully big “ifs.”  A lot of men did not have good role models or appropriate instruction.  A lot of evangelical men had no instruction at all.  They were taught to deny their sexuality, which leads to shame and an increased lack of ability to recognize when they are sexualizing females.  It also leads to a lack of owning the fact that a man does indeed have agency when he is with a woman.  He does not have to act on his impulses.

When both sexual attraction and agency are denied, what you end up with is the Billy Graham rule, also known as the Mike Pence rule, where a man refuses to be in a private meeting with a woman.  What is not acknowledged is how this diminishes the humanity of the woman in favor of “protecting” the man.  Talk about patriarchy!

There is something even more sinister.  As a male, I spent most of my time with other powerful males.  The narrative they told themselves was that they needed to avoid private meetings with women because, “there are a lot of women out there who want to bring down a powerful man.”  Yeah.  Right. I cannot tell you how often I heard that ridiculous narrative.  A lot of evangelical males will go a long way to deny their fundamental sexuality.

Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, comes to mind.  What he did was so far outside the bounds of acceptable behavior that he should be suffering severe consequences.  The last thing his church should be doing is trying to reconcile prematurely with the women he abused.  What they should be doing is educating other male leaders about what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different if Hybels had come to grips with his sexuality early in life.  What if he had learned to acknowledge it, and control it, long before he gained the power that gave him so many opportunities to make inappropriate advances toward women?  Unfortunately, if you deny the reality of your sexual impulses, it should come as no surprise when you deny the actions that result from those impulses.

Alpha males set the tone for how women will be treated.  If an alpha male sexualizes women, the rest of the men are likely to follow suit.  If an alpha male ignores women, the men will likewise follow suit. If you have any question about the power of an alpha male in a boardroom, you need look no further than press pool video of cabinet meetings in the current White House.  It is frightening.

There are few places in my life in which I feel more upside down than in a boardroom.  Are the men ignoring me because I am an alpha, or because I am an older woman, or both?  I have no idea.  But I can tell you with certainty that it annoys the hell out of me.

Watching everyone ranked and/or sexualized is disturbing.  I think, “Oh please, dear God, tell me when I was a male I was not like that.” I know I did not sexualize women. I refused to do so.  But when it came to the ranking system, I was more of a participant than I would like to admit.

There are so many difficult lessons I am learning.  Hardly a day goes by that I do not find one more thing to grieve about my male life, and many of those discoveries are about power and patriarchy.

How do we move from a system of alpha leadership to a system of collaborative leadership? I am not sure.  There are some of us who have moved toward a Trinitarian-inspired leadership model, but I’m not kidding myself.  The alphas still carry a lot of weight.  But the first step toward fixing a problem is recognizing its existence.  And oh my, am I recognizing its existence!


17 thoughts on “The Frightening Power of Alpha Leadership

  1. Paula,
    As a gender non-conforming female-born married lesbian who works with all cisgender conservatives in an office, I can confirm, the hieracrchal system is alive and well, and supported by all those involved. It has hindered me from moving up in the ranks, because I am not seen or respected as either gender. Thank you for being forward about the discriminations you see in your journey. It is empowering to so many.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Alfa Leadership – Culture and You

  3. Hi Paula,

    I have been sporadically following your journey over the past couple of years. Not only do I love the clarity with which you are able to communicate your experience, but there are times, and this post is one of them where I feel the anxiety of ‘gas lighting’ lifted off me.

    After a life time of listening to men deny EXACTLY the behaviours and beliefs that you put out there on front street this morning I am doing a happy dance!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have been in a female-dominated profession all my working life (speech and language therapy) but this rings true from when I was a lowly receptionist in an architects’ practice. The alpha male had to be brought his special tea in a special teacup!! I also felt the need to look a certain way, and felt demeaned and objectified. I remember once eating a banana at my desk and finding the entire (Male) office had stopped work to watch me. I laughed it off because I had to.
    Thank you. I am really pleased to find your blog.


  5. I meant to say, in a female-dominated profession, the men (often gay, or very comfortable with their femininity, so not typical alphas) are revered by the women. There is a lot of ‘mansplain’. They are fast-tracked for promotion and typically end up in senior management roles. It is depressing.
    On the positive side, I think management does tend to be more collaborative. There is a lot of support and genuine friendship. And we do help one another be better therapists.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I follow the Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule out of respect for my wife. Her preference is that I not put myself in a situation where I could be perceived as acting outside of the bounds of my marriage vows. I hope you know, Paula, that I have a lot of respect for women and served on an eldership with women. I have promoted women within our organization and am comfortable with women in leadership. My wife witnessed her uncle putting himself into a regular, private situation with a woman in a business relationship and then he left his wife for that woman. The Billy Graham rule is not patriarchy, it’s practicality, and I think women should follow the same practice about not being alone with a man to whom they are not married. Your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry Brad, but I don’t agree with your conclusions. I believe that is a failure of that particular man and that particular woman. To penalize all women because of that is to use a club to kill a gnat. Do you know how many meetings with men I am not able to take now? It’s frustrating. Therapists have been meeting alone with clients across gender boundaries for decades without any significant crisis in the profession. This is a problem specific to religious professionals, whether they be evangelical pastors or Catholic priests.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s sad to hear that you’re unable to have meetings with many men now, Paula. I’m curious, and I want to be as respectful as possible in asking this question, do you see me as a controlling alpha male? I don’t feel that way, but maybe it’s because I have never been on the outside looking in? You know me well. I would respect your opinion and try to learn from it.


      • I’ve spent a lot of time lately identifying the men in my current and past life who really did “get it” when it came to ways in which they treated women. You are one of the ones who has always gotten it. There are others, but frankly, not a lot. You remind me a lot of Mark Tidd, the founding pastor of Highlands. Both of you empower women.


  7. I think the reason you have such work environments is due to a lack of skilled workers and competent employees. People will often use bad behavior to control an environment to hide lack of skill, I find this to be especially true in America. The office work environment if saturated with employees who focus on dominance to control hierarchy.

    If the work environment had the most skilled workers at the top of the hierarchy, most people employed today would be fired and replaced due to incompetence. I think this is one of the number one reasons other countries are taking so many jobs from the US, they simply care more about skill and capability than they do about sex, politics or race.

    The Alpha person is becoming a dinosaur, what does an Alpha matter to AI, automation, and work from home terminals? How long will people like that last in a world filled with overly trained, highly intelligent people who can work from any location?

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Thanks for the affirmation, Paula. Reading your story from week to week tells me I still have a long way to go. But reading your story helps me see a path. I have to admit I struggle with some N.T. passages. So, I am trying to study them in context to see what fits with the N.T. writers’ sociological weltanschauung as compared to the genre we live in today. What is literal, what is not? There are clearly cultural passages in near proximity to troublesome passages — women praying with head uncovered, a man having short hair vs a woman having long hair. Haven’t heard any sermons on those lately. At the same time, some definition of sin seems to be fairly clear.

    Even in light of all that, my Father taught me to be respectful of women and to see them as vessels of Christ that can be used just as a man can be used. Barry McMurtie carried me to a higher plane on the issue of women in church leadership. In the evangelical world I am beginning to see signs of wormen being given the opportunity to preach, which is the next step to Senior Leadership. This is an area where I believe our movement will see change in the next 5-10 years and would not have ventured a decade ago.

    The LBGBTQ issues will be much tougher. I remember at one of our church planting retreats years ago when a mutual friend of ours said that in the next decade we will be facing the challenge of gay and lesbian issues in the church (this was the language of about 20 years ago). He went on to say that we will be judged in how we respond, just as the church deeply disappointed God in how we responded to racial issues in the 1960’s. As a youngster who grew up 3 miles from the Watts Towers I can tell you that I never visited the towers in those days. I didn’t have to watch the riots on TV, I could see the smoke rising from the comfort of my lily white front yard. I lived on the other side of the white curtain. If anyone who lived near those towers darkened the doorway of our church they wouldn’t exactly find a warm welcome. The pastor at the reatreat you attended threw out what he thought to be a rhetorical statement which is now a real statement: “Will the church learn any lessons from how we treated African Americans in the 1960’s when they fought for equality. With that in mind our next test before God is how we treat Gays and Lesbians in the coming decades. I am afraid we will fail.” There was a stony silence in the room… on to the next item of discussion.

    I keep watching for nuggets in your writings to help me grow, Paula. I have to admit I find myself frustrated from time to time, but on the other hand, my frustration lasts for the time it takes me to read your blog. Your frustrations go to bed with you every night and wake up with you every morning. I’m glad you have found people you can be in fellowship with from you can receive love and to whom you can go when you are blistered with hate. My prayers are not for you to change – that ship has sailed. My prayers are for you to find peace.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are so thoughtful Brad, and I appreciate so much how open you are to thinking with me. I know you don’t agree sometimes, but your spirit – that’s what we need to heal this nation – your spirit.

      On gay stuff, I’d recommend Colby Martin’s book, Unclobber. Colby is a church planter in San Diego. You’d really like him. On hermeneutics, I’d recommend Derek Flood’s book, Disarming Scripture.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have been in more important meetings than one can count the past two decades, and this is about as truthful as it can be. Sad, I’m a male, and I hope I am the exception. There is nothing worse than sitting in a meeting that quickly becomes counter productive because of an overbearing alpha male or alpha female. Professionalism, that’s what we all need. Good work Ms. Williams.

    Liked by 3 people

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