Are You a Stable Pack Leader?

Photo: Jeremy Burger

“Humans are the only animals that will follow an unstable pack leader.”

–       Cesar Millan, ‘The Dog Whisperer’

How many times have I followed an ‘unstable pack leader’? Try: My whole life! I bet I’m not alone either. Ever since I heard that quote a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been pondering what it means, and whether it matches my own experience.

Cesar defines a stable pack leader as someone who is what he calls ‘calm-assertive’, present in the moment, balanced, and consistently providing clear rules and boundaries. For dogs these are “exercise, discipline and affection… in that order!” He asserts that dogs immediately know whether someone is in that state by their energy, and can’t be fooled by words or the outer symbols of power that persuade us mere humans. I’ve recently become a fan of his show for that reason— to see him modeling that energy, and to learn how to manifest it more in my own life.

Looking back to my teenage years at a selective girls’ school, I remember teachers who commanded my respect. Although they seemed a little strict initially, they often also turned out to be great fun. In my mind, they were much taller than me, although I was a gangly teenager and must have been 5’10”. No one risked being cheeky to them. I knew that they were in charge. I felt safe: to learn, to have fun and to be protected from bullies— the kind who went for me, or the kind who went after them.

Not all teachers were as effective. When I heard that 4B had locked Miss Dunstan in the stationery cupboard one day, I was horrified and enthralled. I was so sorry for her, so appalled at their daring, so uncomfortable with the reversal of the status quo. With “Lord of the Flies”–type instinct and cunning, they had sensed her weakness, and gone after her en masse. She didn’t last much longer at the school after that.

Why do we follow an unstable pack leader, if it is against our animal nature? When I worked for Maria (not her real name), a singing teacher on a summer course in Germany many years ago, it was clear to me by the second day that she was crazy and a vicious bully. What kept me there, despite levels of stress that made me physically sick within the first week? The unwillingness to speak up for fear of bringing her ire down on myself? My discomfort with breaking my agreement with her and seeming unprofessional? The difficulty and expense of finding my own way home? Yes, all of the above… along with a conditioned belief that if someone else is upset, it must be my fault, and that I need to placate them at any cost.  I went out of my way to be pleasant to Maria…. yet Cesar doesn’t recommend showing affection when a dog (or in this case, a human) is unstable, as it only nurtures that state of mind.

Rationalization is another obstacle to observing clearly. For example, we may have a bad experience with someone, but decide that it is just a temporary aberration. When I was a child, my mother instilled the habit of looking for the good in others. Wonderful. What she didn’t know how to teach me was that some people are not well-intentioned at times, and how to deal with them when they are not. So, I was constantly trusting other kids, only to be disappointed by some of them time and again. On the other hand, men were not to be trusted… unless they were doctors. So I was too nervous to date, but unsuspecting when my osteopath made an unwelcome move on me in the middle of a session.

What if we could open our minds and just observe what is, without trying to categorize it neatly? For example, Rachel is kind and has a bad temper at times, or Mark is loving and has a tendency to be unfaithful. Not one or the other. Both. When we move out of a child-like desire to separate everything into good or bad, black or white, we can begin to open up to being present and learning to trust our instincts.

I’ve experienced several types of unstable pack leaders. There’s the neurotic or borderline leader, who is all saccharine sweetness one moment and a howling banshee the next. There’s the conflict-averse pack leader, who is unwilling to deal with issues amongst the pack. There’s the weak leader who wants everyone to like them, and will do anything to achieve that.  There’s the impulsive leader, always changing their mind. There’s the passive-aggressive leader who won’t tell you what to do, only point out what they don’t like once you’ve done it. And there’s the icy cold leader who is impersonal and punitive.

Luckily, I’ve also been fortunate enough to work with and for stable pack leaders- those who are willing to be calm-assertive, present, balanced, with clear boundaries. Mrs. McGarrigle, my second-grade teacher always kept control of our class, but also organized games and fun activities, and gave out treats at the end of the week to the class team with the best track record (exercise, discipline and affection work on little kids too!) Tom, my Alexander Technique teacher, peaceful, compassionate without ever being sentimental, clear about his role, available in the moment for whatever was needed. Mrs. Martin, our English teacher in high school, who despite being an eccentric individual who would never say “Good morning, Miss Ashton” when we all greeted the principal in unison at Assembly each day, and who told us all to read Mao’s “Little Red Book”, was a rock of stability in the midst of a sea of hormones. And my spiritual teacher, constant, strong, motivated by love, willing to be present with whatever shows up.

And so I find myself beginning to form an idea of what is needed to evaluate a stable pack leader, both from the challenging experiences I have had, and the splendid examples I have found. Here are my principles so far:

–       Tune in to your intuition.

–       Be open to seeing what is.

–       Be cautious about packs and their rules.

–       Be willing to walk away rather than staying involved with something detrimental.

–       Be honest about what is true for you, even if it is uncomfortable.

–       Don’t give over your authority to others. Be willing to take direction, but always check inside whether it lines up.

–       Don’t placate bullies- it only reinforces their behavior.

–       Be centered, calm-assertive, balanced, consistent.

–       Maintain clear boundaries (for example, business versus personal)

I realize that I’ve set high standards for myself here, and it may take a long time to learn to abide by these principles, but, honestly, I can’t wait to start!