Become the Pack Leader


June 2021 | William A. Cohen, Ph.D., Major General, USAF, Ret.

Drucker, in his analysis of use of the liberal arts to accomplish any management goal found that 50% of success of the process was due to effective leadership. Today organizational researchers estimate that roughly 50 to 70 percent of how employees perceive their organizational climate can be traced to the organization’s leader. Although we usually refer to packs as being a group of hunting animals such as wolves, there is much to learn from pack leadership in leading all organizations. In leading a wolf pack, the pack leader is in front and is expected to do everything in his or her power to protect the pack and further its interests. 


If you consider that there is no size which defines the pack, all leaders are pack leaders. Military leaders and religious leaders are both pack leaders; so are politicians, teachers, coaches of athletic teams, consultants, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, health care providers and social workers of all types, parents, and you and I, too. We can all be pack leaders no matter our occupation or even if we’re not formally employed. Whenever we negotiate with someone, hire or interview for a job, start a business, sell a house, lead a group, or raise a child, we are in a pack relationship and can be an effective pack leader for the benefit of the pack even if the pack numbers are limited.

What is Pack Leadership?

Pack leadership evolved over the millennium to optimize and enable survival of selected species that especially required it. On the TV show, The Dog Whisperer, dog psychologist, Cesar Millan, referred to the need for a dog owner to be the pack leader in the relationship between the owner and his or her dog. The techniques that he taught, even the importance of posture with head up and shoulders back while speaking with calm assertiveness, are identical to techniques needed in leading human packs. Posture alone may define the ability of the leader to lead in many situations. Would you follow a leader who was hunched over and appeared to lack confidence and experience? Of course not. And what Millan taught in being the pack leader with your pet dog works with human packs as well. 

The connection between man and animal has to do with the brain’s wiring which is similar in both animals and in humans. In a well-known lecture, The Neurological Origins of Individuality, Stanford University Neurobiologist, Professor Robert Sapolsky explains this connection and the proof of its existence.  When two female hamsters with differing ovulation cycles are placed in a cage together, the two will synchronize their cycles within a short time and both soon have the cycle of the dominant hamster, the pack leader. This is true of all animals, and in research done at Wellesley College, this phenomenon was repeated with humans. Analyzing roommates’ menstruation cycles found synchronization exactly as in animal experiments. Again, ovulation was synchronized with the female member who was the pack leader.

Pack leadership can have many other effects on the human brain and as well as human behavior. This helps to explain group behavior including horrific examples such as those who practiced genocide during World War II or committed suicide at Jonestown. Becoming pack leader can have important biological impacts which result in behavior of those in the pack, either positive or negative. 

Yet, becoming a pack leader is not difficult and is based on only three prime elements:

  • the pack leader following certain basic principles
  • the pack leader’s knowledge and understanding of individual pack member behavior and reactions to environmental stimuli
  • the actions that the pack leader takes to influence the pack.

No single leadership focus, including “servant leadership,” “shared leadership,” “participatory leadership,” “situational leadership,” or any other leadership approach is always best for all packs in all situations. This is why even those forms of leadership which may work extremely well in one particular situation, may fail completely in another. Pack leadership integrates aspects of many different leadership approaches in applying the three prime elements. This gives the pack leader a broad capability in dealing with pack members in many different situations and a broad range of options in leading so long as the basic principles are followed. The goal is neither a leader at the top dictating orders, nor a “laissez faire” leader who allows the pack any performance and is not in charge or responsible for anything. Pack leadership seeks to develop engaged pack members who are self-motivated and working with the pack leader and other pack members to achieve worthwhile and essential goals.

The Need for Pack Leadership

Pack leadership is necessary for all packs including in families where leadership may alternate among different members at different times and for different tasks. This is a type of shared leadership. Effective pack leadership is of major importance to every married couple, especially when children arrive. Effective family pack leaders inspire and guide children to successful citizenship and wonderful careers, sometimes overcoming major problems and disadvantages along the way. 

One challenging situation is where there is only one parent in a family. This is confirmed if we look at children from a home in which there is but one parent. Seventy percent of juveniles in state reform institutions come from single-parent or broken homes. It is more difficult for such children to become successful members of society. An effective pack leader works well with a partner and this is important. Yet, the disadvantages of the single parent family can be overcome with effective pack leadership by one parent. In fact, some children of single-parent homes are among the most successful in our society.

Pack leadership is important for all packs, though many may not even recognize that they are in a pack. This is dramatized in the 1988 film, Stand and Deliver. It portrayed the story of Jaime Escalante, a new teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. The pack was a high school class.

Escalante was assigned to a group of Hispanic teens from the Los Angeles ghetto. With good pack leadership, Escalante taught them how to master math requirements for college. Every member of his class passed difficult college math requirements, while most students at the same school failed to pass even very basic high school math courses. His students’ achievement was a feat so unheard of previously that the results were closely examined by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) which administered the test and by school administrators. ETS questioned the students’ grades with the erroneous assumption that the students had to be cheating to achieve such extraordinary results. However, ETS did agree to retest these students.

The test was given with only one day’s warning and under rigidly controlled conditions. Yet every single one of the students passed, and their original test scores were confirmed by ETS. Escalante was a superior pack leader, even though he was a new math teacher in the school, proving that it is not money or experience in the classroom, but pack leadership that is the decisive factor for successful outcomes in the classroom or any other environment.

The same was found true of professors in colleges and universities. On November 19th, 2009, judges selected four Professors of the Year from around the country. The judges — comprising education reporters, academics, government agencies, and foundations — chose the winners from a pool of more than 300 nominees. The four winners were from colleges and universities teaching in many different disciplines. What did these outstanding professors have in common? According to Inside Higher Education, “This year's four winners all find ways to encourage students to teach themselves.” It was not the professor’s expertise, length of time teaching, or dollars invested that made the difference. These Professors of the Year were all outstanding pack leaders who knew how to motivate and lead their students to top performance based on their own abilities, just as Escalante did.

Benefits of Being a Pack Leader

The benefits of the effective pack leader are clear: fewer dysfunctional families, lower costs to society, more stories of significant accomplishment coming from poor and disadvantaged families, greater productivity in the workplace, and fewer economic problems caused by ineffective or non-existent pack leadership in the corporate or public service world. 

Becoming a pack leader is more difficult. It requires courage and absolute  ethical leadership. It means greater self-confidence and the ability to reach goals formerly thought unachievable, as well as greater job satisfaction and professional advancement. It means better leaders and more effective packs.



The Art of the Leader  by William A. Cohen (Prentice Hall, 1990)

The Stuff of Heroes by William A. Cohen (Longstreet Press, 1998)

The New Art of the Leader by William A. Cohen (Prentice-Hall, 1999)

Secrets of Special Ops Leadership by William A. Cohen (AMACOM 2005)

Drucker on Leadership by William A. Cohen (Jossey Bass, 2010)

Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top by William A. Cohen (LID, 2019)

The Art of the Leader, 3rd ed. by William A. Cohen (Pyramid Press, 2018)


Dr. Bill Cohen is a retired Air Force general and you can “Google” him as “Major General William A. Cohen.” He graduated from West Point and has an MBA from the University of Chicago and an MA in Management and PhD in Executive Management from the Peter Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University. In 2009 he received an award as a distinguished alumnus from that institution. He’s a distinguished graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, DC in residence. His more than 50 books on business and Management, including A Class with Drucker, Drucker on Marketing, Drucker on Leadership, and his latest book, The Practical Drucker, have been published in 23 languages.

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