The ultimate alpha male

Business 8 Comments

Published in Corporate Dossier, ET, May 30, 2010

In ancient India, the throne on which kings sat was known as the Singh-asan, the lion-seat. The patron goddess of kings, Durga, also rode lions. Images of lions adorned the gates of royal palaces and could be seen atop pillars. One such image adorns our national emblem. The close association of lions with royalty had a reason. Everyone knew that the lion was the king of the jungle, the greatest predator, on top of the food chain with no natural enemy. But that was not what a king was supposed to be.

Lions are the ultimate alpha males. A lion lays claim over a pride of lionesses by fighting off other males. The battle is fierce. The winner takes it all. The losers are left without mates. There is no sharing. When a lion takes over a pride it kills all the cubs fathered by the previous alpha male. Thus he ensures that only his gene pool survives. Having taken over a pride he rests, leaving all the hunting to the lionesses. When the lionesses hunt a prey, they make way and allow the lion to eat his fill before they feed themselves. Thus in a pride, the lionesses do all the work while the lion enjoys the fruits of their labour. They hunt, he eats. They bear his cubs and take care of the young, it is the lion who decides if a young cub should live or die. He is the absolute master and they are his slaves.

For many people, lions are the perfect symbol of leadership. Followers should be like lionesses, afraid of and subservient to the lion. When the leader takes over he wipes out all traces of the predecessor. The leader does no work, nor does he help or guide. All he does is relax and stake claim to the fruits of the labour of the followers.

This is the case in the warehouse at Bhiwandi where Shekhawat is in charge. He sits all day in his office and expects his team to deliver. If they don’t, he denies them wages or delays their bonuses. Everybody fears Shekhawat. There are rumours that he uses violence to intimidate his people. He does not like being criticized. And if anyone complains about him to the management, they risk losing their job, or something worse. But the management in Mumbai allows Shekhawat to function. He is their iron man. They feel only he can manage the rather tough lot at the warehouse. Before Shekhawat, they had sent Pande to manage the warehouse. Pande was a gentleman who tried to motivate the men with words and tried to get everyone to follow the policies. But the labourers were a rowdy bunch. They simply ignored Pande and threatened to form a union when he tried to act tough. Pande had to be replaced. Shekhawat was brought in. He used brute force to get the workers at the warehouse in order. They quivered in his presence. Like lionesses, they did what he told them to do. This made the management happy. But they are also afraid. Shekhawat knows his power and is slowly becoming a law unto himself. There are rumours that he demands bribes from vendors before allowing their goods to be unloaded from trucks. No one is sure, but no one is willing to check. They fear the roar of Shekhawat.

Shekhawat is practicing leadership by fear. He is the lion. His team are his lionesses. The tragedy is, as observed in the case of Pande, his followers respond only to a lion. They want to be lionesses!

Leadership by fear may not be part of management books, but it a tried and tested method. Feudalism is essentially leadership by fear. Today explicit violence may be considered illegal and uncivilized, but implicit violence is still practiced, and extremely popular. The most popular non-violent fear-inducing tool is the threat of sacking people. This is especially visible when the markets are down and jobs are scarce. When a manager says, “My way or the high way,” it is a lion growling. One often hears managers moaning that young people today are not afraid and in fact threaten to quit when threatened with sacking, indicating their desire to be lions.

But in ancient India, the king was expected to sit on a lion, not be a lion. His patron goddess, Durga, rode a lion, meaning she domesticated the king of the jungle. The message here is about human beings having the ability to overpower and outgrow the animal urge to dominate and frighten others into submission. The king was not expected to treat his people like animals who needed to be controlled by fear or force, or tamed by ‘carrot and stick’. To treat people like lionesses and to behave like a lion is an act of de-humanization. A king was expected to help his subjects discover their humanity. Humans are the only animals who can empathize. The king was therefore expected to provoke his people into empathy, and in the process unlock their own hidden potential. To be the lion is to be the leader who frightens. To sit on the lion-throne was to be a leader who inspires.

  • Sujay

    Practically speaking, It is OK to have sympathy and empathy in a personal relationships where you do not have “money” at stake. But may be not in “business” where one has to deal with people of spectrum of attitudes and the kind of behavior that one exhibits towards one group may not be appropriate for other group b’cos the different group of people are “conditioned” in different ways.

    Does Scripture talk about that? And if they do, how can you “specify” the scripture that are very “general” in nature?

    • Vikram Singh

      “Conditioning” of mind fortunately is not a cementing act which if done once is sealed for ever. For humans, fortunately, this can be done and undone.

      In Mahabharata Krishna chooses to be Pandavas and not Kauravas. He makes a “choice” to associate himself with a certain set of people for “his business”. Likewise we make our own choices everyday which “conditions” us or labels us.

  • Sarika

    Great! … now one has to decide wheather he/she wants to be a follower of lionesses or to be like a godess Durga! again it depends upon the sitiation in which the persion is being trapped!

  • Leadership can also be looked upon as the one who can bring about change. I would interpret the Lion analogy as bringing about a “change in mindset” … to get over the fear of the mindset that it is difficult to domesticate a Lion – the animal OR the animal behavior. In business or otherwise it is relationships and therefore money and your sympathy for a particular relationship may be directly proportional to the near and long term returns from that relationship.

  • To be a true leader you need to look out for the underdogs around you.

  • Balsu

    The attitude domestication is a clearly the theme. The Lion attitude should be domesticated and should eliminate Lioness attitude in the office. Difficult but not a distant dream though.

  • No doubt our scriptures & puranas had lots to tell us about good living… Yet is there any directional reference for a person who suffers because of the vested interests of such alpha males in businesses? I very badly require them Mr. Devdutt. Hope to find ref in your articles once i finish reading all of them.

  • Naida Mastin

    Great analysis . Just to add my thoughts if others are searching for a a form , my family filled a template version here