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Why the myth of the “alpha leader” should be debunked

Successful alpha leadership is more about caring and healing than dog-eat-dog supremacy.
An alpha male in a suit sitting in a chair.
Christian Bale in "American Psycho" / Eric Robert / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • The concept of the “alpha male” is misunderstood in our popular imagination.
  • Among animal societies, alpha leadership by both males and females emerges from sympathy and support — not just from strength and aggression.
  • Understanding the subtleties of alpha status can offer valuable insight into the nature of successful leadership.

The alpha leader is about power and dominance. He thinks and acts like a winner, and people are naturally drawn to his strength and assertiveness. He can dole out favors from his social throne or be downright Machiavellian to anyone foolish enough to step out of line. Oh, and he’s totally ripped, too — with a six-pack and everything.

This concept of the alpha leader is instantly recognizable in our popular imagination. He makes regular cameos in TV dramas, history books, and political ads. He’s also a myth — or, more accurately, not the only alpha in town.

According to Frans de Waal — a primatologist whose writings helped introduce the term into our cultural lexicon — an “alpha” simply denotes the one at the top of the social hierarchy. It’s not necessarily the bullish or the brash who reach that pinnacle either. Alphas can be humble, supportive, compassionate, and sympathetic. They can uplift those in need and serve as peacekeepers by putting the needs of the group ahead of their own.

And more often than not, de Waal and others contend, it is this other alpha who discovers true leadership success.

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The chief healing officer

Our perceptions of the animal kingdom tend to be clouded by the often-used, yet sometimes misunderstood, idioms “dog-eat-dog” and “survival of the fittest.” While nature certainly is red in tooth and claw, that doesn’t guarantee aggression and selfishness are always the best strategies for success. This can be especially true among primates, de Waal’s specialty.

In chimpanzee societies, for example, alphas do exercise control over the troop, and that role does require the occasional bout of hair-raising and chest-thumping on their part. However, the physicality of such displays often obscures the intention behind them.

In many troops, these displays aren’t for the alpha’s advantage; they are meant to quash quarrels between other members. The alpha male uses his strength to separate the fighters, stand between them, and make it clear that the fighting must stop. Crucially, he does so impartially by setting his own social preferences aside for fairness and shielding weak members from stronger ones.

Alpha males play a similar control role among pigtail macaques. In his book Different, de Waal shares the story of an experiment that removed high-ranking males from a troop. The results were marked:

“During those days, the society seemed to come apart at its seams. There was less play, and the monkeys fought more. Fights lasted longer than usual and turned violent more often. With the leading males absent, reconciliation rarely followed these skirmishes. As a result, tensions among the monkeys rose to a worrisome level. The only way to restore stability was to return these males to the troop.”

A male baboon bears his teeth among his troop.
It’s worth noting that the “control role” isn’t the same in all primate species. As de Waal notes in his book, baboon alphas can be a nasty bunch, who use strength, intimidation, and the threat of violence to maintain social, um, “harmony.” (Credit: Fabien Rigollier / Adobe Stock)

Beyond their control role, alpha males can be wonderfully caring and communal. When it comes to offering care, female chimps hug distressed group members more than males with one exception: the alpha. Alphas are also known to care for orphaned chimps and welcome the support of high-ranking females, which they reciprocate in turn.

“I think people overestimate male dominance mainly because they think purely in physical terms. But primate societies are political systems and physical power is only one part of the whole equation,” de Waal said in an interview.

And while we’ve focused on alpha males so far — because, well, see the quote above — there are of course alpha females too. Among chimpanzees, alpha females play a different kind of control role by disarming male combatants of their rock or stick before the fighting can start. Meanwhile, bonobo societies are run by alpha females, with alpha males serving as the coalitional partners.

Given all of this, de Waal argues that it’s better to think of an alpha — male or female — not as the commander-in-chief but as the “healer-in-chief.”

The cost of deference

We need to tread carefully. Humans are primates, and our closest evolutionary cousins are the chimpanzees and bonobos. That’s true. However, it’s also true that we are distinct from chimps, bonobos, and pigtail macaques in many important ways. As such, we should be careful about the inferences we draw from their examples. De Waal isn’t saying that chimpanzees are models for human leadership. The results of such literal chest-thumping and teeth-baring would be … weird.

Rather, the takeaway is that the concept of the alpha is much more complex and nuanced than the caricature portrayed in books such as The 48 Laws of Power and the Alpha Male Bible. While often supported by natural examples, this caricature represents only one type of alpha poorly — and one that is hardly the rule. By deepening our appreciation of those complexities, we might in turn improve our understanding of leadership more generally.

Two monkeys sitting on a sand dune.
Among primates, alphas can maintain social control through fear and intimidation. However, they can also maintain their social clout through caring and by earning the admiration of their troop. Unfortunately, the former has permeated our culture, and it’s a myth that needs to be debunked. (Credit: fubilmuh / Adobe Stock)

Another example: We tend to bring that same overestimation of “male dominance […] in purely physical terms” to our understanding of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. As the story goes, they survived in a wild and dangerous world thanks to their brains and brawn. While the women stayed at camp — weaving, gathering berries, and caring for the children — the men would march off onto the tundra to hunt wooly game the size of buses. (Oh, and they were totally yoked, too, with six-packs and everything.)

But the truth revealed by archeological discoveries and anthropological research is again far more complex. While prehistoric men likely did the lion’s share of the hunting — unlike male lions, ironically — plenty of evidence suggests that plenty of women hunted too. Some hunter-gatherer societies, modern and historic, have also been shown to support women leaders and be remarkably egalitarian (though not all).

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Nuances such as these have led ethnographer and leadership consultant Simon Sinek to see leaders in a more protective role. According to him, groups defer to leaders and offer them the niceties of leadership. In the past, that might have been the first choice of meat or mate. Today, it might be a larger salary and the corner office.

“The leaders we admire, the leaders we follow are the ones that we know will sacrifice their interests to take care of us.”

Such deference comes linked to an obligation though: When the tribe is in danger, when their members need them for protection, the alpha leader will be the first to rush toward that danger to protect the others.

“We have visceral contempt for our leaders [when] they allow their people to be sacrificed so they can keep their bonuses and salaries,” Sinek said in an interview. “The leaders we admire, the leaders we follow are the ones that we know will sacrifice their interests to take care of us. The perks of leadership are not free. They come at the cost of self-interest. They come at the cost of taking care of those in our charge.”

Success for your group

Some may find Sinek’s view of leadership too parental or not participatory enough. That’s fair. Some may argue that there’s a time and place for the command-and-control alpha leader, pointing to examples such as General George S. Patton, whose leadership style and wartime victories earned him the nickname “Old Blood and Guts.” That’s also fair (though one could easily point to General Omar Bradley, “the GI’s general,” as a counter-example).

The point is not that specific qualities make an alpha leader, but rather that every leader has the opportunity to cultivate the qualities they think will bring success to the group.

Consider these stories de Waal shares in his book about two alpha chimps: Goblin and Amos. Amos maintained order but was even-handed and protected the vulnerable. Conversely, the aptly named Goblin would physically intimidate others to get what he wanted and pick fights constantly to maintain his dominance. He even went so far as to dethrone the alpha who protected and mentored him in his youth.

Every leader has the opportunity to cultivate the qualities they think will bring success to the group.

How did it end for these two? Goblin eventually picked a fight he couldn’t win with a younger challenger. With his weakness laid bare, the other apes set upon him. They savagely bit, clawed, and tore at the flesh of his wrists, feet, hands, and even scrotum. Had it not been for the intervention of a veterinarian, Goblin would surely have died.

Sadly, Amos did die, but of cancer in old age. When his cancer became debilitating, the staff at the research center moved him indoors but kept a door open so he could maintain contact with his troop. The other chimps brought him fresh bedding and propped him up on it to keep him comfortable. They made soothing contact with their beloved leader. And when he finally passed, de Waal reports, the troop became eerily silent for days in mourning.

Both were alphas in their own way, but only one truly reaped the rewards of leadership.

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