What it Means to Be Yourself—and Why You Should Buck Current Trends in Education

A dissertation on how to determine whether being a “leader” is right for you.

It’s become the stated goal—and norm—of many educational institutions in the USA to attempt to train all their students to be “leaders.” The motivation behind this is multifaceted, but the aspect I wish to delve into here is the one which supposes that if we teach every person to be a leader, then every person will seek to act for him/herself and achieve the greatest degree of that “pinnacle of success” we sometimes call, “self-actualization.”

Self-actualization, as described by Abraham Maslow in his article, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” is:

“[…]the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

In other words, to be “self-actualized” is to increase that stature of what one already is, at heart, so as to become all that one can be, using one’s own inner self as a template. This, I’ll shortly argue, is directly contrary to the notion that everyone must become a leader in order to become self-actualized.

First, let’s examine the concept of what it means to “be a leader.”

One “clinical” definition of leadership is, “organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal.” This is true in the sense of getting a specific task (or set of tasks) done, but in my experience, it only holds so long as the “leader” has some kind of outside authority (such as being the owner or manager of a company), or is given power (A.K.A. “authority” or “influence”)—by any mechanism, as we’ll discuss next—by the group that he or she governs. The former is irrelevant to the current topic, so we’ll delve into the latter.

How does a person become a leader? Believe it or not, there are college majors—and Master’s degree programs—designed to “make” a person a leader. At the state college here, in Chico, CA, there was a woman in one of my classes (circa 2001) whose stated major was Communication Studies with an Option in Leadership. As she briefly explained it to me, it was basically a major in how to lead people. Yet, according to the Small Group Communication class we were in together (which was one of the few truly “stellar” classes I managed to find at that school), the ways in which a person normally becomes a leader (i.e. gains a “majority share” of power in a group) are the following (though others may exist that I don’t immediately recall/know):

  • Delegated authority (“The boss says this person is in charge;” also a democratic election or governmental appointment. Note that this only works if the delegating person/body is seen as having authority over the people who are to be ruled, and the “right” to appoint a leader.)
  • Social class (material wealth and assumed “right to rule”—which is essentially delegated authority [as above], if only indirectly, and delegated informally by society-as-a-whole, rather than a single person or ruling body)
  • Social currency (a person is considered “cool” or otherwise socially-authoritative)
  • Having proven value to the group (such as having saved the group from a disaster or orchestrated a group “win”)
  • Bringing the group together (such as being the one person that everyone knows)
  • Resource currency (such as money food, wealth, etc. that the group wants/needs)
  • Personal charisma (another way to be “cool,” or socially-authorative)
  • Ascribed abilities (people think this person can do something worthwhile and/or extraordinary)
  • Expertise (in a field relevant to the group’s needs)
  • Persuasion (of various kinds, including rhetoric, bribery, intimidation, flattery, etc.)
  • Knowledge (knowing something the group thinks is important/essential for a leader to know)
  • Celebrity/fame (not typically of the “saw him on TV” variety, though that works for this category, as well)
  • Social influence and tradition (such as elected officials and others assumed to have a “right to rule;” see above)

Most of this list can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_%28social_and_political%29

So, which, if any of these does “having a degree in ‘leadership’” fall into?

Delegated authority? No, because the university isn’t in charge of anyone but its employees and students.

Social class/social influence? Maybe, but only if the others in the “leader’s” group believe that attending college or having such a degree merit a “right to rule”—so probably not.

Social currency? Would you consider a person who says, “I should be in-charge because I have a degree in being in-charge” to be “cool?” Definitely not! So, this is “out.”

Ascribed abilities? Maybe—but only if this “leader” is thought to have all (or perhaps most) of the abilities that the group finds appropriate for such a position; “leadership know-how,” alone, isn’t likely to be sufficient.

Expertise? This really only applies to the category of “Persuasion,” above, since college courses in leadership are likely to teach a student how to get others to put one in charge—but it has nothing to do with most aspects of life, as will be relevant in a “real world” scenario, so I argue that it’s otherwise useless for this purpose.

Furthermore, if you’ve ever tried to actually talk about a group’s power dynamic with the people in that group, you’ll quickly find that the group will immediately dislike you for doing so—and relegate you to a sub-leadership position unless your current leadership position is particularly strong. (Try this if you dare, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

I claim, therefore, that college training in “leadership,” while a potentially useful study in terms of human behavior, isn’t all that useful for getting the opportunity to actually lead people. Similarly, other institutional training is of extremely limited value for actually becoming a “leader” in any “real-world” situation. (Please be aware that such training, depending on how it’s done, can help one become a good, beneficent, leader once chosen—but it won’t likely make one a leader in any case.)

What, then, makes a person likely to become a leader over a particular group of people? The above list is more-or-less complete, from a “getting things done” perspective, so we’ll skip elaborating on the details thereof. What about in life, generally, as our public schools and colleges advertise? Now, we get to the interesting part!

Alpha, Beta, and Omega Personality Types

(You don’t have to pick just one—but you probably already have.)

This is a relatively simplified theory that is commonly used to describe the behaviors of “social animals”—such as dogs, (bovine) cattle, horses, sheep, and humans. (Yes, humans.)

The theory goes, that there are basically three types of “critters” in a social order:

Alphas: The de facto leader of the pack, herd, or society. This person or animal is in-charge simply because he/she is in charge. Usually, there’s some kind of unspoken ritual for making this happen, but once the Alpha is chosen (and I’ll note that as humans, we rarely pay attention to it when this happens), the Alpha typically leads the group without ever mentioning that he’s/she’s the leader. In fact, it’s usually detrimental to do so.

Alpha humans are characterized by traits like, interrupting more in conversation (without being chided for it); being the one who walks off in a certain direction and—without saying anything or looking back—is followed by the rest of the group; validating what the rest of the group is feeling/thinking as if it were his/her own thoughts; acting like an Omega (see below) without actually following the rest of the group; and so on. When a human Alpha is confronted with a Beta, he/she will often pretend to be an Omega so that the rest of the group will see the Beta as trying to “grab power” or similar (especially effective with Americans, who like to think everyone has an equal power quotient)—and/or the Alpha might use subtle passive-aggressive techniques to antagonize the Beta into incurring the group’s annoyance or wrath, so as to remove the threat to the Alpha’s current power and social position. Interestingly, an Alpha may become a Beta or even an Omega, depending on the situation—but in my experience, this isn’t terribly common.

Alpha animals are usually very possessive of the others in their society. For dogs (and other canids), this means nipping at other dogs who act without the Alpha’s permission; laying on top of the other dogs; staring the others directly in the eye until the non-Alphas look away; showing protectiveness over the other dogs; etc. As an interesting sidebar, “small dog syndrome” (yes, this is a real diagnosis) is the result of humans allowing their small dogs to become dominant (or to think they are) because the humans don’t think that such small creatures can become dominant. Ever want to “punt” a chihuahua (for a field goal)? That’s why! The little dog thinks the humans are its underlings, and behaves with aggression when they start to show that they disagree (however unwittingly) with this “axiom.” In other words, its owners have failed to maintain Alpha status over the 6-pound quadruped. (Pathetic, right?) [/rant]

There can be only one Alpha in any discrete group. An organization (like a company) might have a dozen Alphas, but each department or social group will have only one—and it’s not necessarily the “boss!” (Workplace conflict, anyone? We’ve all probably been involved—somehow—in an Alpha-Beta struggle at work, regardless of our own personality types.)

If you have an Alpha personality type, you may feel “entitled” to positions of power/authority, or you may have never considered that you’re naturally in-charge, since you’re always naturally in-charge. (Particularly adept Alphas probably fall into the latter category, most of the time; I’ve met a few who don’t, though.) Importantly, being an Alpha doesn’t make you more “worthy” or valuable than does being an Omega or Beta.

Betas: These are the creatures/people who want to be Alphas, and probably think they’re Alphas, but who are actually not Alphas. They’re characterized by repeatedly getting into “spats” with the Alpha and continually vying for leadership of the group. Interestingly, Betas can actually become Alphas in the right situation, and can even become Omegas if they decide that the present Alpha is doing a good enough job of things (or if they really like that person/creature for whatever reason). In my experience, the latter is unlikely, but only a little less likely than turning into Alphas.

If you find yourself habitually bucking authority, you may have a Beta personality type. Please note that this doesn’t make your personality or position any more or less valid than that of an Alpha’s or Omega’s; it simply may be an indicator of where you’re starting from. It’s probably also true that Alphas need Betas in order to (1) maintain a solid base of power, through continually showing the group that they’re the right person/creature to be in-charge; and (2) have a “devil’s advocate” available when the Alpha has a bad idea. Note, however, that only a particularly adept Alpha will consistently be able to incorporate a Beta’s idea without giving up some quantity of group credibility to the Beta. For this reason, many unskilled Alphas misstep by outright dismissing the ideas of the Betas, to the detriment of the group—and this can eventually lead to one of the Betas becoming the Alpha as a result of having Expertise and/or Proven Value (see these items in the list, above).

Omegas: Probably the most telling trait of an Omega is a strong desire to avoid conflict. If you find yourself far more interested in keeping things “running smoothly,” and avoiding contention than in dealing with power dynamics, then you’re almost certainly an Omega. If so, you’re in good company! Probably 90% (very rough estimate, based on personal experience) of the human population is comprised of Omegas. If it were any other way, we’d be too busy arguing with one another to get anything done!

Omega humans “go with the flow” and “keep their heads down,” though this doesn’t mean any lack of participation in group activities. To the contrary, an Omega is likely to have a great time in a social setting—probably a better time than an Alpha or Beta, in many cases—because all an Omega has to worry about is having fun; power dynamics don’t even come up.

In fact, Omega humans hate talking about the power dynamics of their own groups! More likely, Omegas (and consequently, Alphas) will vehemently deny that any such dynamic exists, and are likely to reject (and thereby dis-empower) whomever insists on talking about such dynamics. (Academic note: all groups have power dynamics; this is a “corner stone” of human interaction, as attested in behavioral sciences, communication sciences, sociology, anthropology, and other well-established and well-respected fields. Also, it’s noted prominently in certain sub-fields of psychology. [No, I don’t respect the current state of psychology.]) For this reason—the adamant dislike of speaking of power dynamics espoused by Omegas—it’s “political suicide” for a leader or would-be leader of a group to mention power dynamics as they relate to present company; you don’t want to rile the Omegas!

Here’s the important thing, though—especially as it applies to this essay: Omegas are the “backbone” of society; we can’t live without them! No leader is a leader without Omegas to follow him/her; and more importantly, no society can’t survive without being comprised of almost nothing but Omegas.

Before I continue, let me first point out, again, that a person doesn’t have to be in just one of these above categories. In my experience, most people fall fairly soundly into just one, but not all do. If you’re an Alpha or Beta, you might regularly oscillate between all three personality types! Also, an Omega who sees that “something must be done” may well take up the mantle of Alpha for just one (or more) important thing(s), and later revert to being an Omega when the need for his/her leadership is no longer pressing. While these above categories may prove to be a valuable guideline for determine what it means to be the “you” that you are, they’re by no means exclusive; you should be the “you” that you like being—whatever that may mean, and however many of these personality types you might have.

The Verdict

So, how about that edict that our educational institutions (public, private, primary, secondary, etc.) are so fond of—that we should make everyone “leaders of society” and such? Well, let me lay it out bluntly for you: it’s utter rubbish.

If you want to become self-actualized, you need to determine for yourself what kind of person you are, and set about being the absolute greatest “you” that you can be. If that means that you are not a “leader of society,” that ‘s perfectly OK! In fact, it means that your life will probably be a whole-heck-of-a-lot easier than it would be if you were naturally an Alpha or Beta.

As a self-realized (not quite self-actualized, yet) Alpha/Beta personality, I can personally attest with great “amplitude” that being an Alpha or Beta is an unending pain-in-the-butt. What happens when you get hired on at a new job and you think that your boss is incompetent (or that you can do parts of his/her job better than he/she can)? When the innermost part of your self says that you need to “take charge,” and the boss tells you that if try to “take charge” one more time, you’ll be fired—you have a real problem. (If you have an unusually-high IQ, this is almost always going to be the case, sadly—even if you generally respect other people and their beliefs, as I typically to do.) Please note that even an Omega can become upset if a position he/she currently inhabits—by delegation or other means—is threatened—even if the Omega doesn’t even like being “in-charge.”

In conclusion, my advice to those who think that “leadership training” and the like are the best “ambrosia” for making healthy adults and pupils, is this: come up with a better plan. To make a truly healthy and effective group of people, the best thing to do is to encourage them to discover whom they are and to unrelentingly pursue actualizing whatever persons they find themselves to be.

A Final Note

Please be aware that not trying to lead is utterly different from simply believing/doing as you’re told, without thinking it over for yourself. “Being yourself” means being yourself! Never let anyone tell you differently.