Being the toughest doesn't make you an alpha male, caring for others does

The way we use the term "alpha male" is actually a massive insult to chimpanzees.

Decades of deep research into primate societies in captivity has shone a searing light on our own behaviour: To be a truly successful leader in any social group, the key attributes are generosity, empathy and an ability to keep the peace.

Bullies need not apply

Somehow, over the years, "alpha male" has come to mean a man who has fought, intimidated and beaten his way to the top, and keeps doing it to stay there.

But that's not what a real alpha male is.

The man who originally gave us the idea of alphas was Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behaviour at Emory University in Atlanta and author of the classic and hugely influential 1983 book, Chimpanzee Politics, Power and Sex among Apes.

The idea of an "alpha male" gained popularity in the mid-1990s, when then speaker of the house in the US, Newt Gingrich, put Chimpanzee Politics on a reading list of 25 books for young congressional republicans.

Suddenly, everyone was fighting to be an alpha male.

Chimpanzee games

The intelligent, planned, tactical coalitions, rivalries, divide and conquer strategies and intricate political games chimps play are just like our own.

"We are apes in every way, from our long arms and tail-less bodies, to our habits and temperaments," says de Waal. We share more DNA with chimps than any other primate, about 96 per cent.


But here's where chimps make humans look like chumps.

In chimps, it's not the biggest or strongest who necessarily becomes the alpha. It's the one who has the most friends, the nicest guy.

The alpha has two jobs. He must keep the peace – break up fights and broker deals. He's also the "consoler in chief of the nation" according to de Waal.

He who cares, wins

Shots of world leaders consoling victims of disaster, like Obama with his arms around hurricane survivors, are eerily similar to an alpha chimp comforting another who has been injured in a fight.

It's a job you just can't do without empathy, which has very little to do with our incorrect understanding of what it is to be an alpha male.

"The possibility that empathy resides in parts of the brain so ancient we share them with rats should give pause to anyone comparing politicians with those poor, underestimated creatures," says de Waal.

How a person, or chimp, responds to other distressed individuals is a measure of their empathy.

The cruel finish last

A bully alpha may be able to bash his way to the top if he's the biggest and strongest. But he won't last long. The group will reject him if he's not genuinely working for the greater good and is just there for the sex and food. Two or three young males, backed by the rest of the group, will make short work of him.

The survival of the species is our strongest behavioural motivator, deep in our ancient brain stems. So when we see children in trauma, removed from their parents, we are deeply outraged, whatever our politics. Chimp society wouldn't accept leadership like that, and neither do we.

Just last week, Donald Trump signed orders to stop the permanent separation of children from their parents at the southern border, in the face of howls of disgust from all over the world, all sides of politics. Great leaders are supposed to protect our children, our future, and we all know it, intellectually and instinctively.

Words have power

The four percent of DNA we don't share with chimps is most likely what gives us the capacity for speech.

So the great leaders in human society have a responsibility to not only lead by example, but by talking.

Our older men need to use their relationships with younger men to show them, too, how to wield power correctly. If a young male chimp is abusing or hurting a female, the alpha will actively stop it and help him become a better chimp.

Our leaders must talk about, and show, empathy and compassion, comfort and care. They must gently resolve conflict, not taking sides.

We need more real alpha males, in our society, more "consolers in chief". We need to overthrow the fake bully alphas for the greater good of our group. It's who we really are.

What it is to be a good man, especially in a leadership position, has never been under more scrutiny in our history.

It's so easy a monkey can do it.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher Allen & Unwin. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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