Unmasking the Alpha

June 6th, 2020 by | Print
Unmasking the Alpha

“Michael Jordan was the alpha, alpha. Period.”
— Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavs

As a basketball fanatic, I was captivated by the recent ESPN docuseries The Last Dance which chronicles the final season of the ultimate G.O.A.T. — Michael Jordan. The one word that kept coming up over and over again to describe Jordan was “alpha.”

Recently, USA Today asked the question, “Michael Jordan was once the alpha of the NBA. Who is the top dog on the PGA Golf tour?” Throwing the “alpha” title around is pretty trendy these days but what exactly does it mean? Is being an alpha a good thing? Is it the masculine target we all should be aiming to achieve?

One of my favorite movies in the last couple of years is actually titled Alpha. It’s a classic “boy-to-man” initiation movie set in prehistoric times. In one scene, the hero’s father teaches his son an important lesson about the wolf culture. He tells him that “the alpha wolf is the leader who takes care of the pack above all else and is always being challenged.” In primates, the alpha male is basically the one who can physically dominate every other male.

Back in 1992, Gatorade told us to “Be Like Mike,” and many of us tried. We bought his Nike sneakers, drank his drink, and sucked up all the brands he endorsed. Jordan had it all — youth, good looks, charisma, wealth, supreme talent and championships. He was at the pinnacle of his game and he oozed confidence and swagger. During the 1992 Olympics Dream Team practices, Jordan snatched the top dog status away from Magic Johnson by physically dominating him on the on the court in a classic “mano y mano” matchup.

Jordan not only earned the alpha title, he relished it and guarded it with ferocity.

“Alpha” males have historically been at the top of the social status hierarchy. They have greater access to power, money and mates, which they gain through physical prowess, intimidation and domination. While it’s easy for the viewer to admire Michael Jordan’s drive for becoming the best and winning, it’s equally fascinating to watch the price he paid for his success.

The Last Dance characterized MJ as a tyrannical, trash-talking team dictator who unleashed maximum accountability on his team members for the sake of winning. Jordan drove his teammates to success at the expense of his relationships. In the end, his most trusted associates weren’t the guys he went to battle with and earned titles alongside. Instead, his bodyguard and his personal assistant were his closest friends — guys on his payroll.

Most alpha males don’t hold their position with grace. And age has not mellowed Michael Jordan one bit. It’s been 22 years since he last won a championship, but Jordan still rules his throne and legacy with an iron fist. In The Last Dance, he recalls petty arguments, perceived slights, and bitter rivalries from 25 years ago like they happened just yesterday. The alpha mindset that propelled him to superstardom isn’t serving him so well in his old age.

After watching the docuseries, I actually felt a great deal of empathy for Michael. He “has it all” but still struggles to relax and enjoy being the best basketball player who’s ever lived. Like most alphas, Michael Jordan has enjoyed all the accoutrements of success – riches, rewards and the ability to make a difference (just yesterday he gave $100M toward racial equality initiatives). But a simple peace of mind is what still seems to elude him.

Much has changed over the past 25 years since Jordan ruled the courts. These days, we hear plenty about what’s wrong with men. The “Me-Too” movement has brought a lot out into the light and terms like toxic masculinity, male privilege, and mansplaining are front and center. In today’s world, the term “alpha” oversimplifies the multi-dimensionality of masculinity and limits what a man is capable of becoming. And it also doesn’t get at the heart of what is really attractive to today’s woman. A recent study showed that kindness, assertiveness and altruism are the new characteristics women are looking for most in a mate.

The allure of the alpha male in American society seems to be devolving rapidly.

In his book The New Alpha Male, former NBA player and TedTalk sensation, Lance Aldred, says “Men are being asked to adapt to our changing world, yet many still want to play by the old rules.” Most women are asking for something different from the opposite sex, but television, social media and advertising continue to stoke the flames of the dying alpha paradigm. For instance, look at all the shows, articles and media posts these days about WAGS (the “wives and girlfriends” of star athletes). The not-so-subliminal message for men is that you can have one of these beauties too, IF you can get rich by making baskets, scoring touchdowns and hitting home runs. These mixed messages are hurting the woman’s movement and confusing men along the way.And it’s hurting our boys, too!

It’s up to the men in our society to help the next generation of young men sift through all of the lies, fabrications and distortions about masculinity that’s being dumped on them 24/7. It’s up to us as dads, grandpas, uncles, brothers, coaches, mentors, teachers to lead the way by stepping into their lives with a masculine paradigm that’s trustworthy and reliable.

That’s why I wrote the book ManQuest — so any dad or male mentor can guide their young man on the journey to manhood. With all of the misinformation that’s swirling around in our media-saturated culture, every teenage boy needs an adult man to step up and teach him a masculine “true north.” While they’ll probably never ask you for it, this is something teenage boys secretly crave and absolutely need! (ManQuest is also perfect for old dogs like us who are looking to learn some new tricks.)

The Old School Alpha Dog Dad is passive and lets his son figure the manhood thing out on his own through trial and error. By saying nothing, he allows the culture do all the work and brainwash his boy with an outdated masculine paradigm of money, power, sexual prowess and athletic success.

Today’s New School Alpha Dog Dad is intentional and he uses his words, actions and feelings to convey to his son what a man is supposed to say and do in this world. He doesn’t sit around and hope his son magically learns about authentic masculinity. Rather, he steps into a difficult topic with courage and conviction. If we’re honest, we all know the old alpha paradigm needs to be shelved once and for all. It’s up to us, the elders of the next generation, to equip our teenage boys with a new roadmap for the challenging road ahead.

Thanks Michael Jordan, for peeling back the curtain a bit and reminding us that becoming an alpha is no longer the measure a man.

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