Self-Awareness: Finding your Inner Wolf

The fictional wolf has a lot to answer for.

I read an unattributed quote recently which said those who choose to be wolves choose loneliness and those who choose to be sheep choose boredom. Evocative yes, but true, no. Utter rubbish actually, at least from the side of the wolves. I have never been pushed to understand sheep so much though, my interactions with them have not enamoured me to their ‘brights’ or their social structure. Such a pointless bunch. So maybe the second part of the quote is true.

But, to the first part, so many of our iconic ‘bad’ animals are horribly misunderstood and wolves particularly so. Wolves have one of the most beautiful and complex social structures in the animal kingdom. There is very little aggression in wolf societies, outside of mating season that is. Ah, the sweet bloody love of survival. But, as a rule, daily issues are sorted out by communicating. Wolf behaviour is a masterclass on communication; body language, constant touches, little yelps and yips are standard throughout the pack. All packs need to communicate to take down a much larger or faster prey. Wolf cubs quickly establish each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how best they can fit into the pack.

The closest analogy that I have to being a ‘proper’ wolf is being a crew rower. In the best boats, we moved as one. We read each other’s body language during the effort; and the best rowers tend to be extremely vocal and clear in their feedback during pauses. As a result, we had an occasionally painful, but crystal clear view of our strengths and weaknesses. On a good day we all liked each other, but every single day we ‘knew’ each other and respected each other. We worked hard, hunted as a pack and routinely devoured other boats. Hungry, predatory and electric we were united by a shared goal.

In psychology, this behaviour can be aligned to being assertive. No one steps on anyone else (aggressive) and no one gets stepped on (passive). Everyone is safe. I work consciously and continuously to find this balance. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I face-plant, Such is life.

When I am coaching new rowers, I am always intrigued by new people who start by letting me know that they are ‘a bit rubbish’; generally someone who is clearly physically fit and capable. It makes me wonder how many (proper) wolves are masquerading as sheep. Masking assertive with passive. So, why is being assertive something to be avoided and do people actually consciously make that decision? I have concluded that it is not to dupe the surrounding sheep (as per the biblical idiom) but often for the safety that the flock provides. I also don’t think people choose.. In fact, I think loss of self comes from an everyday decisions ‘not to’ do things. Not to say how you feel, what you know or like.

As I have travelled and lived in different countries I have noticed that some part of every population is usually very conformist and non-confrontational. I suppose they are the passive ‘sheep’. Many of these people probably are happy (depends on the country a bit) but many can be extremely passive-aggressive to deal with. A lot of their subtext is loaded with frustration and it always me sad. Passive-aggressive behaviour is aligned with people who feel powerless; and generally these people have power, they simply choose not to use it. Why, when they have the power of wolves do they choose to be pointless sheep? (So often all they have to say is ‘No’!) What a waste. I have seen this behaviour explained by people as keeping a ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ or ‘One who exercises great self-restraint in the expression of emotion’. A term apparently coined in America but heavily aligned with being English. But there is a big difference between exercising restraint and not communicating at all; between the communication of the necessary and the unnecessary.

To be clear, the logical extension of not communicating the unnecessary is efficiency. The logical extension of not communicating the necessary is lack of clarity, uncertainty and stress. Simples, yes? But where do we we see it?

We see it everywhere. If we start with the passive end of the spectrum, I recall asking the Operations Head at one bank why it was so cold in the office in the mornings. He responded that the brand new computer stacks ran a lot colder and they needed senior executive sign-off to turn down the air-conditioning settings and no-one was willing to do so. I asked whether that, as a senior executive from another department, whether I could sign-off. He said that, if I was brave enough, then I certainly could. And so I did, because I really couldn’t see any downside ( I checked!) Afterwards a surprising number of people complimented me on my ‘bravery’. I should have been happy but their words saddened me. How could my pack thrive when a decision so simple and so sensible (it saved almost £100,000 per year) be seen as job-endangering at a senior management level? Crazy. But, in my experience, so painfully common. That bank was taken over not long after.

On the other end of the Passive-Aggressive Spectrum was a boss that I later had. We all know him, very ambitious but not actually very knowledgeable mainly because he wasn’t secure enough to ask questions or listen to others. He probably believed in the fictional wolf. Despite being widely regarded as an utter numpty, I guess he was powerful, lonely and mysterious. At board meetings, he had a room loaded in expertise, but he wouldn’t allow anyone else to speak. Only ‘his’ ideas and ‘his’ words counted. As a result, we suffered the ignominy of being publicly associated with the ridiculous directives that resulted. Okay, none of us were stupid enough to question his decisions publicly; but I don’t have a good track record with keeping my mouth shut and there was a potentially huge staff litigation created by some extremely unfair treatment that was chewing at the conscience of a few of us. Finally it wound up being me (the youngest with ostensibly the least to lose) approaching him off-the-record at a social event. I was careful to be non-confrontational. A little away from the crowd, body at a slight angle and deferential eyes (Apple does some great staff training on this) I let him know. Okay my contribution was never acknowledged, but we did avoid the litigation and equalise the treatment of thousands of staff. The pack might have been led by a fictional wolf/village idiot but it was still my pack (I resigned soon after).

A lot of people see this sort of behaviour as my ‘leadership’ potential and while I might have yearned for this when I was younger, I now know better. In fact the Regional Head once asked me into his office and told me that I was on track to take over from him. I was flattered but responded that I had no interest in his job. He was baffled (how could anyone who worked like me not be ambitious?) but I loved my job and knew I would hate by the constant meetings, the posturing, the long-played political machinations of his job. I am happiest on the coal-face, learning the ropes, seeing the benefits first-hand and (importantly) having the autonomy to make decisions that made a difference. In a last ditch effort he said, ‘You know it pays five times what you are currently getting?’. I responded that I loved my job, was happy with my pay and that money wasn’t what motivated me. It took many years but I know my ‘happy’ place in the pack.

Now we all exist on that spectrum somewhere. Everyone needs to find their own happy place on the spectrum and within the wider pack. But wherever we are, the masks need to go. We all need to find our own real power and be brave enough to use it. Communicate (and question) the necessary and, always, remember the pack.