- Not all alpha males are bullies; in fact, research in chimpanzees suggests that most aren’t.
- In a recent TED talk, the primatologist Frans de Waal, who popularized the term “alpha male” in the 1980s, says that we’ve been using it all wrong and that the best leaders are both impressive and caring.
- Other research on power dynamics in humans suggests that the same holds true for us.
Frans de Waal says it’s time for us to stop insulting the chimps.
In a recent TED talk, the primatologist lamented the popular perception of “alpha males” as brutish, harsh leaders.
“I am actually partly responsible for the term alpha male because I wrote this book ‘Chimpanzee Politics,’ which was recommended by Newt Gingrich to freshmen congressmen,” he said.
But his research in chimpanzees shows that leadership is more nuanced than that.
Alpha chimpanzees are impressive and intimidating leaders, but the majority of those who rise to the top are also generous and kind to others because they know respect will help them maintain their position at the top, de Waal says.
“You should not call a bully an alpha male,” de Waal said. “Someone who is big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male.”
He says many chimpanzees know being kind and loving is a way to win over fans, whether by tickling babies, sharing food, or engaging in a kind of primate political campaign.
Other scientists who’ve studied the way power dynamics work in humans are uncovering similar truths.
Research suggests that we are more likely to perceive “physically formidable” men as better leaders, but that doesn’t hold true if they’re jerks. Still, power is a dangerous drug. It can chill your ability to empathize with others because it disengages the prefrontal cortex and deactivates the vagus nerve, which promotes compassion, gratitude, and appreciation.
There is a way to counteract these effects. If leaders feel a heightened sense of social responsibility, they can remain in tune with needs and views of others.
It seems the chimps are on to the strategy.
“You don’t need to be the biggest and strongest male,” de Waal said. “The smallest male, if he has the right friends and keeps them happy, or he has female support, he can be the alpha male.”
You can watch de Waal’s full 15-minute talk on the “surprising science of alpha males” here: