What Really is an Alpha Male?

The concept of Alpha male personality goes as far back as the 1940's.

But the term “Alpha male” was used by Dutch-born primatologist Prof. Frans de Waal in his book „Chimpanzee Politics” based on his research on the social behaviours of these primates in the Arnhem Zoo in The Netherlands.  

Incidentally, Prof. Frans de Waal was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2007. He also is a psychology professor at Emory University with a Ph.D. in biology.

His book, „Chimpanzee Politics,” was recommended to freshman congressmen by the U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 1994. Since then, the term Alpha male has become very popular and, consequently, also has been used loosely all over the internet, so Prof. Frans de Waal made some clarifications.

Alpha male does not mean bullies, and jokingly he added, “you should not insult chimpanzees by using the wrong label.”

His Alpha male definition is as simple as the highest-ranking male is the Alpha male. The highest-ranking female is the Alpha female.

Though his study and research focused mainly on primates, I do not believe, for a minute, that we are close relatives with them, as De Waal often says, but I agree that we can learn a lot from these animals.

So, what are the real alpha male traits?

Body language

The Alpha male assumes the Bipedal swagger when he wants to display control. This posture is where the mammal stands tall and walks on both his hind legs with his arms loosely hanging on his sides away from his body. This very confident, bold posture gives an air of superiority which is very common in high-ranking people.

How can you be an alpha male?

According to Prof. de Waal, “you need to be impressive, intimidating, and demonstrate your vigor on occasion and show that you’re very strong.”

But more importantly, according to Prof. De Waal, Alpha male also needs to demonstrate the following behaviours:


Grooming is a very significant social activity within chimp groups. Aside from grooming being a way to clean oneself or another chimp, it is a powerful way to form and maintain alliances. The longer a chimp grooms another chimp, the more favour he gets at food-sharing.

When a younger male would like to dethrone an Alpha male, he would go on a campaign by building coalitions among their group. He would share food generously and groom other males to gain their support. And since he needs the support from the female group, he starts to play with the baby chimps and tickle them. They do this to gain favour among the females.

In humans, I believe this is what we call reciprocity. Love begets love, kindness begets kindness, and the age-old golden rule “What you sow is what you reap.”

It is natural that when you do someone a favour, they feel obligated to return the favour. There will be a few outliers, but generally, it is the case. People reciprocate.

A primate will do it out of instinct, but a leader should do it out of the natural goodness of his heart. Because no matter how you fake it, people will find out. Generosity in leaders is not all monetary. It could be their time, knowledge, words of affirmation, and talent, especially when grooming their next leaders.

2. Peacemaking

Alpha males stop fights. They come in between two fighting chimps, and they do not take the sides of their family or friends. They generally defend the underdog, which contributes to the Alpha male’s popularity, especially among the weak in the group. This behaviour demonstrates that the Alpha male can provide and assure them of the security they need.

The Alpha male who keeps order longer within their community will be more popular, loved, and kept longer in power.

Isn’t that true in humans too? Peacemakers are beloved in any organisation, community, society, and country. They mediate in conflicts, provide clarity in chaos, calm down hostilities, and handle things with composure.

You will notice peacemakers do not tromp their way in to create attention. But you will be surprised, they generate followers. Their distinguished character shows in how they speak, move, and behave.

3. Empathy

The Alpha male is the chief consoler in the group. He goes to console the loser in a fight, keeps him company, and grooms him.

Empathy is defined, by Cambridge Dictionary, as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.”

And in humans, it goes beyond empathy. We progress to compassion, which means we try to help and alleviate someone’s suffering. If Prof. De Waal says perspective-taking takes intelligence and primates can do it, shouldn’t it be expected more in humans?

Prof. De Waal talks about an incident in a Sweden zoo when an Alpha male chimp saw a young chimp choking to death because a rope wrapped twice around his neck. So the Alpha male chimp grabbed the young chimp with one arm and used his other arm to unwrap the rope. A true display of empathy and compassion.

An Alpha male leader should develop empathy and compassion because these two come together. They co-exist. I firmly believe compassion begins where empathy ends. A leader does not just talk about his employees’ difficult situations amidst covid. He tries to get information about their situation and finds ways to send help.


An Alpha male leader, according to Prof. De Waal should not be, first of all, a bully. But, he should be “impressive, intimidating, and demonstrates vigour on occasion and show himself to be very strong.”

But, Alpha male is not all size and bulk. Strength is not seen only in size. The smallest can also be an Alpha male if he has the right friends, constantly works at keeping them happy, and if he gets female support. Just like in humans, leaders come in all ages and sizes.

Age may dethrone an Alpha male from the highest rank, but the coalition that he has developed or created can give him a very influential force because coalition is also extremely important in the primates’ network.

As revealed in Prof. De Waal’s study, coalition (or influence, in humans) plays an important part in leadership. So how do humans build a powerful influence? Build relationships based on trust.

Do gentlemen’s agreements still exist? When two people agree on something and both trust that each one will be honourable to keep his end of the bargain, even without a written contract. When a man’s word is his contract, and people continue to do business with him on a handshake, you know that man’s got strong influence.

An individually strong chimp may defeat an old male chimp or an Alpha male chimp separately, but he will not be able to defeat a coalition between an old Alpha male and a young Alpha male. This coalition system will be very difficult to overpower and is extremely important to demonstrate unity within a team. A leader will not exist without his team.

Generosity, peacemaking, empathy with compassion, and trustworthiness. For me, and I agree with Prof. Frans de Waal, those are the key behaviours an Alpha male needs to have. And that is as far as I will agree with him, though. Not the part that I am a close relative to the chimps.

What is your idea of an Alpha male?

Do you share the same description of an Alpha male as Prof. Frans de Waal?

Share your thoughts. Let’s talk.