Insights On Leadership From Chimp Alpha Male Behavior

Many aspects of today’s world are often referred to as “jungles”. We have the concrete jungle in reference to large cities full of tall concrete buildings with hardly a patch of green in sight. We also have the corporate jungle, which many of us have to face daily in our jobs. While modern man has evolved from his former state of nature, it seems as if the laws of the jungle still apply in the modern world.

In order to survive in the modern jungle, it might be worthwhile to take some lessons from the real jungle. The chimpanzees (together with the bonobos) are our closest relatives and share about 97% of the same DNA with humans. They live in societies led by alpha males. These alpha males dominate all the other members of the group and use different types of strategies in order to attain and keep their rank. These strategies could be quite illuminating for the potential human alpha males as well.

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The Rise of Mike

In 1960, Jane Goodall started studying a small group of chimpanzees living in the Gombe National Park near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. At the time, the alpha male of the group was Goliath, a huge chimpanzee who could intimidate other chimps with his size.

However in 1964, a remarkable thing happened. Goliath was deposed from his position by Mike, a physically much smaller chimpanzee, who until then was probably one of the lowest ranking males in the community, usually spending his time on the outskirts of the group, and often getting physically attacked by other males. He was usually the last one to get access to food, eating only after all the other males have eaten.

This changed almost from one day to the next. On one of those hot, sultry days that often happen in the African jungle, Mike walked over to the camp of the researchers and took two empty kerosene cans by their handles. Then, while carrying those two cans, he walked over to the place at which he was sitting previously, close to the other chimps.

He started to rock back and forth, at first only slightly, but then more and more vigorously. The other chimps noticed this and started to watch him intently. Mike began to make hooting sounds and then suddenly charged towards the place where the other males were sitting, running fast and hitting the two cans in front of him. When he approached them, the other males ran out of his way.

Mike ran a bit into the jungle and disappeared from sight, but in a few minutes he was back again, making a lot of noise and hitting the cans. He once again charged the other males. They once again ran away from him.

Then at that moment, he made a fateful decision. Goliath was sitting a bit away from the group, but Mike decided to charge him as well. He ran towards him, hitting the cans and hooting so loud, that even Goliath got out of his way.

Male chimpanzees show their submission to more powerful members of the group by grunting and reaching out their hands. The display persuaded all the other members of the group of Mike’s superiority. At that moment, all the other chimp males came up to Mike, grunting and reaching out their hands, and then grooming him. The last male chimp to come to him was David Greybeard, until then Goliath’s staunchest ally in the group. Only Goliath remained apart.

Mike vs. Goliath: The Showdown

The match was now set for a showdown: Mike vs. Goliath. Whoever would win this epic showdown would become the alpha male of the group.

The final showdown came one time after Goliath returned from a two week patrol in the southern parts of the group’s territory. One of the main roles of the alpha and the other males, was to protect their group’s territory and so they would often go off on patrols.

This day was the culmination of a period of fierce displays between Goliath, the incumbent alpha male and Mike, the challenger. Their displays grew more and more fierce, with both Goliath and Mike trying to outdo each other. Mike managed to learn how to keep three empty kerosene cans in motion and so his charging displays were very noisy and messy. Goliath would often charge and beat up some of the young chimps in order to show who the boss around there was.

That day, as he was returning from his patrol, Goliath grabbed a huge branch and dragged it towards Mike. Mike was sitting in a tree, ready for what was to come next.

Goliath, then leapt into a tree that was very close to the tree in which Mike was sitting. At first they starred at each other intently, motionless. Then Mike started his display. He started swinging wildly on the branches, jumped down to the ground and started hurling rocks at Goliath. Then he leapt into Goliath’s tree and started swinging the branches there.

Goliath reciprocated by doing a display very similar to Mike’s, swinging around and leaping to the ground in order to throw rocks at Mike. Then Mike came down again as well and they continued their charging displays on the ground. However they never even touched each other. Each tried to overcome the other just through a sheer display of intimidation.

Then the final moment came. They both stopped, and nervously eyed each other sitting down. Then suddenly Goliath ran up to Mike, and doing the chimpanzee sign of submission, began grunting and grooming Mike. Mike savored this for a moment, but then turned around and reciprocated. He was now the undisputed alpha male of the group.

This entire story, which was described in vivid detail in Jane Goodall’s book “In the Shadow of Man”, makes for a riveting and illuminating reading.

3 Strategies

There are 3 main strategies that the male chimps use to gain alpha status.

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1) Size, Strength, Intimidation

The first strategy that the chimps use to get to the alpha male position is to be as big, strong and intimidating as possible. This is to a large extent a matter of genetics in terms of size, plus an intimidating attitude.

The first alpha male that Jane Goodall observed was Goliath. Goliath was a huge and intimidating ape, hence his name. His charging displays were impressive and he would often intimidate some of the females and young ones in order to show everyone who was in charge. His huge size in comparison to all the other chimps made him stronger than the rest of the challengers and so more dominating.

Another chimp alpha male that used his size and intimidation was Humphrey. While Goliath was a bit more balanced and had some smarts about him, Humphrey was what Jane Goodall called an “ape psychopath”.

He deposed an aging Mike from the leadership position, by cornering him and beating the crap out of him. However Humphrey’s reign did not last long. He was soon deposed by a coalition of two brothers, Figan and Faben. He ended up staying high in the hierarchy, but from then on served more in a role of the enforcer, beating up on other chimps.

He is also notorious in being the main culprit of the first ape on ape murder crime ever witnessed. He caught and held down a chimp from the rival southern group. His companions then pounded down on the poor chimp, killing him in the first battle of what became known as the Gombe Chimpanzee War.

The Gombe Chimpanzee War took place between 1974 and 1979 between two groups of chimpanzees that had formed one community until 1971. In that year the communities split into two, the southern group was led by two chimps known as Hugh and Charlie and included an aging Goliath, while the northern community was the bigger one and was led by Figan, who became the alpha after a brief period of time that followed the overthrow of Humphrey and his reign of terror. Even after Humphrey was overthrown, he stayed within the group, but now in the diminished role of an enforcer.

Figan seemed to have had the bright idea of focusing the group’s attention on an outside threat and set out to eliminate the group that had recently split. Within a five year period, they managed to attack and eliminate all the males of the rival group.

Size and aggressive behavior is one of the main strategies and tactics that the chimp alpha males use, and in many groups the largest and most intimidating male usually becomes the alpha. Toshisada Nishida, a Japanese chimpanzee researcher who spent a long time in the Mahale Mountains in Tanzania following a community of chimpanzees wrote the following statement in his book “Chimpanzees of the Lakeshore”:

All of the alpha males I came to know, except for Sobongo and Kamemanfu, were large in body size. Kasonta weighed in at 57 kg, and Ntologi and Sankaku, who did not even fit on the scales, probably weighed close to 60 kg each.

2) Intelligence

However as already noted in the story of Mike, brawn and big muscles don’t always mean alpha. Smaller males can also become alpha males of the group, but they need to rely on other strategies and the one that Mike used was based on being ingenious and intelligent.

The point of chimpanzee charging displays is to look as intimidating as possible. If you are big, then you can do this naturally, however smaller chimps don’t have this advantage. So Mike decided to improvise.

Other chimps often use rocks or branches in their displays, but Mike found other ways of making as much noise and look as intimidating as possible. He found whatever material was possible, in that case in the form of empty kerosene cans, and used them in his displays. This amplified the noise. Also the fact that he was rolling these cans in front of him made him look dangerous. All this ended up intimidating the other males. Mike made up for his lack of size, by new creative ways of doing things.

Alpha males in chimp communities also have to be smart. In order to lead, they have to use their brains. One way alphas use their brains is by inventing tools to facilitate different tasks within the community, such as getting food.

Recently, researchers studying chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in Uganda, observed an alpha male chimp named Nick create a new tool and teach everyone else how to use it:

A 29 year old alpha male called Nick made a new type of sponge out of moss instead of a leaf. He made his new tool while being watched by a dominant adult female called Namibi. Within the next six days, seven more chimps made and used this type of sponge. Six of these individuals had seen another chimp make a moss sponge before making one themselves, whereas the other picked up and used a discarded sponge, which is probably how the behavior was learned.

Smarts often outdo muscles and by being creative and smart, smaller chimps can reach alpha status. However in order to be effective leaders, alpha male chimps also have to use these smarts in order to lead their community by for example inventing new tools.

3) Political Alliances

One of the most important strategies among chimps in order to gain dominance is to form alliances with other chimps. In this way, even smaller, more mild-mannered chimps can rise to become the alpha male of the group.

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Political alliances among chimps can be formed through different manners, sometimes based on familial or friendship ties, but the most important strategy on how to get allies is through grooming. Grooming is especially important for chimps since they all carry all kinds of parasites on their body. The act of grooming is when a chimp goes through the fur of another chimp and gets rid of their parasites. By doing this, chimps can get important allies. The main basis of this strategy is doing favors for others in order to create a network of friends for support. You scratch my back, I scratch yours.

Almost all chimps engage in this strategy, but it is especially the smaller ones that resort to this more often. A scientific study looked into different alpha male strategies and concluded this:

The study focused on three alpha males who reigned between 1989 and 2003. Frodo, one of the largest and most aggressive male chimpanzees ever observed at Gombe, weighed 51.2 kg (112.6 lbs.) at his peak. He relied on his size and aggression to rule. While he allowed other chimpanzees to groom him, he seldom returned the favor. At the other end of the spectrum, Wilkie, who weighed only 37 kg (81.4 lbs.), obsessively groomed both male and female chimpanzees to maintain his top position. And Freud, who weighed 44.8 kg (98.6 lbs.), used a combination of the two strategies. (The average male chimp in Gombe weighs about 39 kg (85.8 lbs.).

If you want to survive in a tough jungle environment and eventually reach the top spot, then you need allies to do it. You need someone to watch your back. The allies also get benefits, as being allied with the alpha male can get them to rise up in the social hierarchy as well.

A chimp needs to pick his allies carefully though. Another scientific study looked at how the different alpha males build coalitions and determined that building coalitions with different individuals who were not in coalition together was very important:

Of the four measures they used to characterize a male’s coalitionary behavior, the only one that was related to both of these factors was ‘betweenness’ — a measure of social network centrality — which reflects the tendency to make coalitions with other males who did not form coalitions with each other. The only non-alpha males to sire offspring were males that had the highest ‘betweenness’ scores. These males were also more likely to increase in rank, which is associated with higher reproductive success.” This shows that having a social savvy is very important.

Coalitions of smaller males can often topple large, dominant and intimidating alpha males. For example in 2011, a group of four chimp males living near Lake Tanganyika organized a coup against their dominant alpha male, Pimu. This guy was a huge specimen who ruled by intimidating others. One day, he started to beat up on the second ranking male. The other male escaped into the jungle, but as he did that, four other males charged Pimu and killed him.

In order to stay at the top, you need to combine all three strategies

It should be noted that no chimp that used purely only one of the above strategies managed to stay at the top for long. Humphrey who was the huge, intimidating psychopathic male, got deposed quickly by a coalition of two brothers. After a small period of there being no alpha male in the Gombe community, one of the brothers, Figan took over the leadership. So here an alliance based on family ties managed to depose the brute and install one of the brothers as the alpha.

Figan was not a huge ape, but he did focus the attention of the group on outside threats and managed to keep his alpha status until 1979. He was the one who led his group in the war against the splinter group in the south. So he used intimidation against another group as a tactic to keep his power. Here you can see how Figan combined political alliances and intimidation (and focus on an outside threat) in order to keep his alpha status.

On the other hand, within his own community, he used his power in a constructive way and gained such a dominance that he did not need to be aggressive or intimidating. He served as a regulator within the community and broke up fights as soon as they started, trying to keep intra-community conflict down to a minimum.

However shortly after the end of this chimp civil war, Figan was deposed by one of his proteges, a young chimp named Goblin. This short episode with Goblin shows that even close friends can backstab you and so you need to watch your friends as well. Figan took Goblin under his wing and made him rise in status, only to be deposed by him when he wasn’t looking. Figan managed to regain his position after a year, but Goblin came back again a few years later to become alpha.

So the best alliances for a potential alpha male are with natural beta males. Oftentimes the most successful alpha male chimps would rely on having strong allies among those males who were not really that interested in raising their status. In their book “Great Ape Societies”, Linda F. Marchant and Toshisada Nishida write about two types of males and alliances:

Many adult males appear to be keen to raise their status. However, there seem to be two types of males, those who are preoccupied with the promotion of their rank and those who appear less interested. Nsaba and Toshibo are among the former type of males, and Aji and Bembe among the latter. Such a combination of males may be compatible. The friendship between Ntologi and old declining males Musa and Bakali may also be explained in a similar way.

These types of alliances are win-win for the natural betas as well. By supporting the alpha, they get preferential access to food and females, without having to be the leaders. Naturally, in order to keep their support, the alpha has to share some of the spoils with his supporters.

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Jane Goodall noted that the average reign of chimps who relied primarily on intimidation was only about 2 years, while those who focused more on coalition building and smarts ended up staying at the top for 10 years. A real alpha male needs to know when to use force and also when to be nice. An alpha who rules by terror inevitably pisses off all the other males against himself, who then end up uniting against him and depose him, often in a violent way.

Intelligence also is a big part of staying an alpha male for a long time. While Goliath is remembered as a big, intimidating guy, he was also the first chimp observed to be using tools in the wild. So while, being big and intimidating was his main strategy, his intelligence also came into play. And he did not forget alliance building either, always getting backed up by a big chimp named David Greybeard.

What this all means is that if chimps want to gain alpha status and keep it for a long time, they cannot rely on just one strategy, but need to use a combination of size, intelligence and political alliances. In fact, they need to be Renaissance Chimps! 🙂

It is especially important not to rely on intimidation as the sole way of maintaining status. An alpha male who is too aggressive towards everyone else will provoke dissent and coalitions will eventually end up forming, which at some point will topple him. Even a huge guy cannot win if a bunch of other guys gang up on him. That’s why intimidation should be used only in special cases.

New alpha males are often very generous to their fallen rivals. It does happen that they chase the former alpha male into banishment, but more often than not, they behave as the best of friends to them. For example, when Ntologi, the big alpha male in Mahale was deposed, he went into solitary exile, wandering by himself. Later he was joined by Jilba, another ostrasized male.

Even though, he was banished from the group, Ntologi still kept close tabs on what was happening. Kalunde, the chimp who deposed Ntologi and became the new alpha male, could not contain the bickering of other males vying for dominance and was losing ground. Ntologi quietly contacted his old aging beta pals, Musa and Bakali and started plotting his comeback.

Then it happened. Ntologi strikes back! He came back and regained his alpha male status. He threw a lavish meat party in order to celebrate and invited his deposed rival, Kalunde, as the guest of honor. Kazuhiko Hosaka, a Japanese researcher, described it this way:

His return was marked by a drastic change in relations with Kalunde, the very rival who had ostracized him. They were friends, just as if they had been so for a long time. For example, on the day Ntologi returned Kalunde obtained some meat from him. Very often they mutually groomed. During some grooming episodes they even kissed each other with mouths fully open and then this excitement was followed by play, a scene which previously could not have been imagined. I interpreted it as a process of reconciliation that had to be carried out to confirm their new relationship. Both Kalunde and Nsaba now pant grunted to Ntologi. Other members in M group also greeted him with pant-grunts.

In this way, incumbent alpha males would get support from their old rivals. By being generous, they fortified their own position. It is very common for chimps to make up really quickly. One moment, they might be charging each other, but a few minutes later, they might be behaving like the biggest of friends, grooming each other and sharing food. The chimps recognize that in order to survive in the jungle, they need the goodwill of others and most of them try not to create too much unnecessary drama.

Being generous and in that way building up support and alliances is a common tactic among males trying to gain alpha status and also to keep it once they get it. Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist, in his book “Good Natured”, described how one particular male tried to combine bravery, intelligence and generosity in order to gain supporters:

During one of the power struggles at Arnhem Zoo, the challenging male, Luit, developed a sudden interest in live oak and beech trees on the island. Their foliage, much liked by the chimpanzees, was almost impossible to reach as every tree trunk was surrounded by electric wire. Luit would break a long branch from a dead tree, then drag it to a live tree to use it as a ladder to avoid getting shocked – an act of great skill and bravery. Once high in the live tree, he would break off many more branches than needed for himself, only to drop them to the colony waiting below. Soon everyone, including rival males, would be munching on fresh leaves from the sky.

This “make it rain” strategy proved successful, as Luit soon became the alpha male.

The chimps also know to adjust their strategy according to circumstances. So for example when trying to rise to the top, they might prefer the aggressive strategy. However once they already have their alpha male position, they might switch over to a more cooperative and political strategy. They might also switch up their strategy based on the different individuals they are dealing with, being aggressive with one guy, but friendly with another one.

Practical Application

There is a lot of practical wisdom you can learn from the way things happen in nature. If you want to become a leader, an alpha male, then you can learn a lot from the way chimpanzees reach this position. I will write more on this in a later post.

Read More:
Chimpanzee strategy to get females:

Get females by giving them meat

Traits of the alpha male leader:
What you can learn from the chimps

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2 comments on “Insights On Leadership From Chimp Alpha Male Behavior”

  1. WOW! This is a very comprehensive article!
    These 3 strategies are important for an man who is looking to make moves up the corporate ladder.

    Political Alliances are always important! I tend to use it at work all the time. Being generous by giving them my attention when they need something or are having issues with their equipment.
    Also when a problem arises that no one knows how to fix I would step up and figure out how to fix the problem. When this happens usually people are looking over your shoulder and when you solve it you become the go to man!
    Because of the strategies above I quickly went up the ladder to Manager.
    Its all about strategies!
    Even in the way you walk! Walk with your head up, shoulders back with a little swag shows confidence, People will literally move out of your way.
    its crazy! But it works!

    • It’s amazing how many things we can learn from nature. After all, our ancestors lived in that type of environment and the basic processes are the same whether you live in the jungle in Africa or the corporate jungle anywhere in the world. 🙂

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