What You Can Learn From The Chimps: Traits Of The Alpha Male Leader – Part 1

chimpanzee alpha male

chimpanzee alpha male

What does it take to be a leader in today’s society? The way society looks in the modern world might have changed, but the old rules of rising to the top still continue to function in the same way as they did before. It is still a jungle out there and you need to understand the rules of the jungle, if you want to become a leader.

Chimpanzee society is ruled by alpha males. These are the leaders of their groups, the dominant males. We can learn a lot from the way that things function in chimpanzee society and apply it in our own world. In a previous article, I have analyzed some strategies that chimps use to become the alpha males of their groups.

Now I want to delve a bit deeper into the traits of an alpha male. The same traits are needed for a man to become a leader in today’s society and to stay at the top. We can gain a lot of insight into the nature of leadership by looking at our closest cousins.

1) Ambition and the Will to Lead

Mike was a small chimp, who at the beginning of his life spent most of his time on the outskirts of his group. He was the last male to eat and he was not respected by the other males. Yet he still rose to become the alpha male by using his smarts.

Jane Goodall noted that what separated him from the others was his enormous will to lead. He had a huge drive that pushed him to do everything possible to rise to the top. Most of the other males in his group did not have this incredible ambition and the drive to fulfill it. Sure, many of them wanted to be the alpha male as well, but they lacked the willpower and the headstrongness that Mike had.

When he started his bid for power, Mike had this incredible energy about him. He was always coming up with new ways to try to show his dominance. This dominance was not based on physical power, since he was physically small, but on the illusion of power.

He found kerosene cans and used them to make his charging displays more threatening. He was always running around, causing havoc. When the researchers took the cans away from him, he found something else. He did not let obstacles stop him from reaching his goal: the goal of becoming the alpha male of the group.

Alpha status is something that can be won over by the sheer force of willpower. Mike wanted to be the leader, and wanted it more strongly than everyone else in his group. He achieved his goal.

Not all chimpanzees have this ambition and will to lead. Even the biggest males can sometimes be at the bottom of the group due to their mild personalities. One such example is Jomeo.

Jomeo lived in the same group as Mike, although a few years later. At one point he was the biggest male in the group, however he seemed to lack any ambition or drive to be dominant and so was one of the lowest ranking males in the community. Jane Goodall (in her book “Through A Window”) noted:

I have often wondered about Jomeo’s fascinating character, his strange lack of any sort of dominance drive. If he had not been wounded as an adolescent, would he have gone on to become a high-ranking male? Probably not, after all, his brother Sherry showed the same inability to cope with adversity. Was this a genetic, inherited trait? While this is possible, I suppose, it seems far more likely that it stemmed from the personality of their mother, Vodka. It is indeed unfortunate that I did not know Vodka well – she was too shy.

It seems that the drive for dominance could be a factor based on nurture, so it is something that can be changed. When the researchers first saw Mike, he was a social outcast, hanging out on the edges of the group and often being the last male to feed. His behavior did not seem to be that of someone who wants to fight to be the alpha male.

However at one point something changed. Maybe Mike just reached the point where he got tired of living at the edge of the group, being an outcast. He just decided to say “fuck it” and go for it. He set a goal for himself and went on to pursue it with determination and tenacity. Ambition and the will to lead depend on the mindset and so are definitely things that an individual can work on.


With ambition, one has to watch out though and go about things in a systematic way. Appearing too eager for leadership and rising to the top can backfire. In extreme cases, it can even result in the individual chimp getting eliminated by his rivals.

One such example comes from the Ngogo community at Kibale National Park in Uganda. There, one lower-ranking male had recently risen quickly in rank, which did not sit well with some of the other males. So at an opportune moment, a group of males decided to eliminate one rival for themselves. They formed a coalition, ganged up on him and in the ensuing fight ended up killing him.

That particular individual that was killed had been showing a lot of ambition to lead, however he did not back it up through coalition building, intelligence or strength. Instead, he was a loner who associated with very few other chimpanzees. This made him a prime target for other ambitious males who decided to gang up and eliminate him, in order to have one less rival for the top positions. The particular lesson here is that you need to back up your ambition in some way and especially have powerful allies to defend you.

2) Confidence

An alpha male needs to be confident in his abilities. That is the only way to stay at the top. Some chimps have natural confidence. This is usually due to the luck of life and being born big.

However you can also build up confidence. At the beginning, Mike looked like the typical loser chimp, almost an outcast in his group, his head down and sulking. That changed. Success breeds success. He gradually built up his confidence.

First he faked it till he made it. In order to look more intimidating, he incorporated props in his displays. In this way, he looked threatening to the other males. He did this all the time, and little by little he built up his natural confidence.

At a later point in time, the researchers took away his cans, so Mike no longer had any props to rely on. However he did not need them anymore. He had built up such a natural confidence and a belief in himself, that even without his props, he challenged males much bigger than him, and succeeded in intimidating them. He won his final battle against Goliath, the huge incumbent alpha male, without using any props.

Most of the time, winning a higher position is also accompanied by a change in demeanor. An alpha male starts exuding confidence, walking in a dominant manner and all the other chimps scamper quickly just to get out of his way. Oftentimes, chimps bulge their chests in order to assert rank.

Amy Cuddy, an American social psychologist has done research into so-called power poses. One particular power pose is called the alpha chimp pose and has been observed in higher ranking males.


Research shows that even such a simple thing as a change in posture can affect emotions, including your mood and also your testosterone levels. Thereby there are major behavioral changes that can arise if an individual adopts such a pose as a habit. A scientific study that was conducted showed the effects that the alpha chimp pose can have:

High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern. In short, posing in displays of power caused advantaged and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes, and these findings suggest that embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choices. That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.

A leader needs to have self-confidence and a healthy self-esteem. This is one of the keys to remaining at the top. This is something that some individuals have naturally, while others have to acquire.

Toshisada Nishida noted that a lack of confidence meant a brisk downfall for any individual that made it to the alpha male position. He noticed this lack of confidence in Kalunde, a male chimp, who succeeded in rising to the top over Ntologi. However the fact that he lacked self-confidence was used by other less dominant males in order to start squabbles. He did not last long in the top position. Other males took advantage of this lack of self-confidence and always tried to pick a fight with him.

An alpha male cannot appear weak, especially in front of his rivals. If he does, then these rivals with try to exploit this weakness. However, at times, even the most confident individuals can face anxiety.
Higher ranking chimps have been observed hiding this anxiety in a variety of ingenious ways. There is one episode that happened at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands that can illustrate this.

The Zoo was experiencing a power struggle between three male chimpanzees. The main challenger to Nikkie, the incumbent alpha male, was Luit. This particular incident started when Luit chased Nikkie into a tree. However all was not well.

With his rival sitting in a tree, hooting at him and looking threatening, Luit was starting to worry. He recognized that his facial expressions, instead of making him look tough, might make others aware of his anxiety in the situation and this would undermine his efforts to get to the top.

So what did he do? He turned around so that his rival wouldn’t be able to see his facial expressions. Human observers who were watching the scene noticed that he had an anxious and fearful grin on his face. He tried to cover this up with his hands and get rid of it by pressing his lips together. It didn’t work the first time, so he tried a second time, which also didn’t work. Finally, he succeeded on the third attempt.

With his grin gone, he turned around to face his rival. Afterward, he did a charging display at Nikkie, pretending as if nothing had happened and he were confident right from the beginning. Chimps know that how others perceive them is very important and so try to maintain face. In the rare times of a crisis of confidence, they fake it until they get it back.

Alpha males need strong self-confidence in order to be effective. Not only do they have to lead their group and protect them, but they also need to be able to beat off challenges for their position from other males in their group.

Frans de Waal describes what a self-confident alpha does when challenged:

A self-confident alpha male just approaches his challenger and sets him straight, either by attacking him or performing a spectacular display of his own. No avoidance of eye contact: he takes the bull by the horns.

Any time the alpha’s position is challenged in a meaningful way, he needs to show that he is on top of things and is confident in his ability to come out of the situation a victor.

An alpha male is the dominant male in the group, but he is also a marked target for any upstart male that wants to take over his position. He needs to be sure of himself and his ability to lead and to stay at the top.

3) Resourcefulness and Creativity

A real alpha male is not some dumb bully, but needs to be resourceful and creative in order to stay at the top. This quality is what separates the successful alpha males from the also-rans and washouts. Most of the chimpanzee researchers have noted that the chimps who use purely intimidation and violent tactics in order to reach the top, don’t last there very long.


One important ability that has been noted in chimpanzees is the use of tools. They can create and handle a wide variety of tools in order to facilitate different tasks. The first chimp ever to be seen using tools in the wild was Goliath, the alpha male of the group that Jane Goodall was observing at the time.

The alpha male has two main goals: a personal one, that is to become and remain the alpha male, and a group one, to help the group that he is leading to survive and prosper. Both of these require the individual alpha to be resourceful and creative.

Mike showed resourcefulness and creativity in his rise to the top. He was naturally smaller than most of the other males in the group. So his size would never predispose him towards leadership and dominance. However he noticed that there are a variety of things lying around that he can use in order to make up for that disadvantage and which would allow him to look more intimidating and threatening.

He picked up empty kerosene cans and incorporated them into his displays. The cans, the way he was rolling them and the noise they made, were quite terrifying and gave Mike the advantage over others. He was resourceful in the fact that he used whatever he could find and creative in the ways that he used these resources to overcome his natural deficiencies.

The use of tools can also be quite helpful for the community in order to help in different tasks. The best alpha males are creative and intelligent enough to not only manufacture tools, but also to invent totally new ones.

Nick, the alpha male of a group being observed in the Budongo Forest in Uganda, one day came up with a totally new tool, a sort of sponge, and in the succeeding days taught the rest of his community to use it. A creative alpha male is much better at ensuring the survival of his own community and thereby his own success.

Tool making was not the only test of Nick’s resourcefulness and creativity. He also used his vast arsenal of smarts to save a female from his community who got trapped in a snare that was planted by humans. The female got her leg stuck in the trap, but Nick succeeded in removing it and saving her. So Nick became the prince charming who saved a damsel in distress!

Being good at strategy is also an important prerequisite for being an alpha. Chimpanzees are actually quite talented at making rational choices. A scientific study published in Nature magazine showed that chimpanzees are very good at applying concepts of game theory to their choices:

Frequencies of chimpanzee choices are extremely close to equilibrium (accurate-guessing) predictions, and shift as payoffs change, just as equilibrium theory predicts. The chimpanzee choices are also closer to the equilibrium prediction, and more responsive to past history and payoff changes, than two samples of human choices from experiments in which humans were also initially uninformed about opponent payoffs and could not communicate verbally. The results are consistent with a tentative interpretation of game theory as explaining evolved behavior, with the additional hypothesis that chimpanzees may retain or practice a specialized capacity to adjust strategy choice during competition to perform at least as well as, or better than, humans have.

Alpha males, being leaders of their groups, have a superior ability in coming up with strategies. Santino, the alpha male at the Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, stockpiled stones at various locations of his range and would throw them at unsuspecting visitors. When the zookeepers started cleaning up his stockpiles, he changed up his strategy and instead hid his stones under heaps of hay that he had brought over from inside his enclosure. Santino showed that good planning and a change of strategy when the situation demands it are something that an alpha male should be able to do.


Out of box thinkers have a higher chance of success. The type of thinking required can be illustrated by one very interesting study. It involved one chimp, some boxes and a bunch of bananas hanging in the middle of the ceiling.

The chimp tried stacking up the boxes one on top of each other in order to get to the bananas, but with no success. That strategy did not get him very close to getting the food.

So he started sitting in the corner of the room, looking all dejected. However when a human walked into the room and approached the middle, the chimp sprung into action, jumped on his back and got the bananas! It was an unconventional strategy, but it worked.

Chimps are by nature curious creatures and like to explore. They have very good numerical and visual memories and have the ability to combine different bits of knowledge into models. Of course the ones that to do it better than others have an advantage. Scientific studies also show that chimps fall for similar logical fallacies in reasoning as humans do. This means that their basic decision making powers function in a similar way as ours. The ones who succeed in avoiding logical fallacies the most are also the ones who achieve the best results.

Nurture plays a big part in decision making and the ability to create strategies. Chimps that have been trained to use sign language do better on cognitive tests. Getting better at one set of cognitive tasks has a spillover effect into others, so by learning new things your brain expands and becomes more powerful.

4) Ability to Read Social Situations

A successful alpha male chimpanzee has to have a good ability to read social situations. He needs to be able to determine when a certain behavior is a threat to his own position or the well-being of the group and therefore requires him to intervene, and when a certain behavior is not a threat and he can let it pass.

There are two main types of situations: ones that impact himself personally and ones that impact the group. An alpha is in a position of authority and there are usually several other males in his group who are always on the look out to challenge that status. He needs to be able to quell anything that will undermine his position and do it very quickly.

An alpha is also a leader and thereby has some duties to fulfill towards the group as well. He needs to keep internal order within his community and also protect it against threats from the outside. Within the group, he plays the role of a leader, arbiter, and protector.

The actions of other individuals in his social community might not always have anything to do with him, however as the leader, he plays a mediating role in order to preserve social harmony. Whenever conflicts between different individuals are about to break out, he needs to step in and stop them from happening. Anticipatory conflict resolution is one of the main tasks of an alpha male within his group. The key to success for an alpha is for him to have a peaceful, orderly community.


All these different roles and duties require someone who has power and knows how to wield it. In order to get power and keep it, it is necessary to not only know and be able to read others, but also to know yourself. For as the saying out of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” goes:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

A leader or someone aspiring to be a leader has to know who his potential rivals are and how they behave. It is also important that he knows his own abilities and has the foresight to act at the right time in the correct manner.

The basis behind this is the ability to recognize your own emotions and the emotions of others, and then act based on this. This is called emotional intelligence.

There are different types of social interactions within any group. Some of these are the ones others have towards you, while other interactions are between other individuals. For an alpha, his role requires him to always be monitoring the actions of other individuals. Based on these actions, he needs to make an inference and a prediction of what they will do next and then react in the right way at the right time.

According to the theory of multiple intelligences, one type of intelligence is called intrapersonal intelligence, which is about being able to understand yourself, your capabilities, and motivations. The other type of intelligence is called interpersonal intelligence, where an individual can understand the wants, motivations, emotions, intentions of others.

Having this type of knowledge is key in being able to correctly judge a situation and then react accordingly. In every type of situation, the leader needs to monitor first and then act based upon all the different variables.

Not all the alphas have this ability. Some alpha male chimps try to show their authority all the time, but those are the ones who end up getting deposed quickly by coalitions of other males.

If a chimp wants to stay the alpha, he needs to have a different approach, which is greatly aided by his emotional and social intelligence. The leader needs to be able to read the actions and demeanor of a fellow male chimp correctly and be able to react accordingly. This means be non-reactive when the situation is non-threatening, but show the other guy who is the boss when the situation could potentially be threatening.

Each particular situation is different and that’s why multiple skills are needed to react in a way that will improve your position. The way you should react will depend on the particularities of the situation, your own strengths, and as well taking into account the strengths of the opponent. The correct action to take will vary according to the situation, what’s at stake, the actors, their strengths and weaknesses and also the impact of the reaction on other things.

In order to be able to react, the leader needs to have a highly developed intuition. This means, he needs to have various models in his head. The way to get these models and develop an accurate intuition is through social learning. From the time they are little, chimps are constantly in the middle of the social group, playing, testing and observing. That’s why many of them are experts in social intelligence.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” mentions the 10 thousand hour rule, which is based on research conducted on what it takes to become an expert. According to this rule, it takes around this amount of time of deliberate practice in order to become an expert at something.

An expert develops a totally different way of looking at things and then acting upon them. For example a beginner chess player thinks about his every move. However an expert chess player doesn’t need to think, but instead he acts automatically. Throughout his years of practice, he has seen some many variations and stored so many models in his head, that he plays as if by magic, just through intuition.

It’s the same way in the social sphere. The chimps with the highest emotional intelligence have spent thousands of hours observing individual and social dynamics and have developed models in their heads upon which they can act in different situations. The most skilled alphas have developed this ability to a high level.

Let’s take an example from one particular situation and how the incumbent alpha handled it. Christopher Boehm in his book “Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior” describes one very interesting episode:

Chimpanzees understand one another’s intentions. When a politically passive Mustard surprised Goblin by landing right on top of him, the alpha male’s arousal was discernible but politically unexpressed. This arousal was soon redirected, however, at late-adolescent Freud, a youngster who definitely had ambitions of his own.

The above situation is quite illustrative of the skills needed to be an alpha. What had happened was that after a successful hunt, several of the male chimpanzees started a spontaneous celebration. They were jumping around, climbing trees, displaying and generally just having fun.

Mustard, a low-ranking unambitious male, got really into it and was springing from one branch to the other, often stopping to display loudly in the trees. However at one point he misjudged his jump and landed on a small branch. It gave way and he fell from the tree, landing right on top of the head of Goblin, the alpha male of the group.

Chimps are known to attack rivals by jumping on them from trees and this could potentially have been something like that. Goblin was a skilled assessor of social dynamics and judged the situation as non-threatening. While a bit taken back, he did not punish Mustard, knowing that he didn’t do it intentionally and was no threat to him.

However, he saw that Freud, a potential rival, was nearby and eventually could take advantage of the situation. Goblin decided to show him that this did not rile him up and that he was still in charge. So he turned around and started to chase Freud instead. He did judge his political ambitions correctly, as years later, Freud would eventually become the alpha of the group.

There are several skills that are needed in order to be able to read social situations correctly. Chimpanzees can read into the intentions of other chimpanzees by being able to interpret body language. Their communication is mostly non-verbal (the verbal part consists of only a few sounds and grunts), and so they need to be able to read into the other chimps body language and especially facial expressions. These provide many clues into the real intentions of that other particular individual.

In the actual action phase the successful alpha needs to have the ability to deliberately control his actions and not be swayed by immediate emotions. This requires a good level of emotional self-control.

Frans de Waal writes:

Not only low-ranking individuals, but also high-ranking ones benefit from impulse control. For example, an alpha male chimpanzee may receive a pointed challenge from a younger male, who throws rocks in his direction or makes an impressive charging display, with all his hair on end. This is a way of testing the alpha’s nerves. Experienced dominant males totally ignore the din, however, as if they barely notice, thus forcing their challenger to either give up or escalate.”

For an alpha to be able to handle all this, he needs to be cool under pressure. The best alphas are the ones who stress the least. Scientific studies on the cortisol levels of alpha male chimpanzees actually showed that they usually have much lower levels of cortisol in their blood than lower ranking individuals. A stressed out alpha is usually the one who doesn’t last long or is on the way out.


An important point to note further is that in order to rise up in a social hierarchy, or actually even just to survive, building networks is crucial. Chimpanzees function as a part of a group. Lone figures die much easier, so that’s why the need to be part of a community and associate with others.

An alpha has to have a group of allies that support him and give him help when he needs it. So that’s why an alpha needs to employ some strategies to keep his friends happy. For example he allows his buddies access to females in exchange for their support.

Alliance building requires a high level of emotional and social intelligence and you also need to build it with the right individuals. It oftentimes happens that some of your best friends end up stabbing you in the back, especially when an opportunity arises for them to become alpha.

On the other hand, an alpha is also always on the lookout to try to prevent hostile coalitions from forming against him. He has to monitor all his rivals and break up all contacts that these might have with each others. This is based on the divide-and-rule strategy that many alphas often implement in order to stifle dissent and coalitions of potentially hostile males.

Coalitions are important parts of the game to gain power and so separating interventions are very important if an alpha wants to prevent others from conspiring against him. This is highly dependent on his ability to read social interactions, as he cannot take it overboard.

If he takes it overboard, then he might get everyone mad at him, which would just encourage them to rise up against him. An alpha needs to know when to pick his battles and when not to.

Male chimps also know not to hold grudges for too long and instead make up right after a fight. It has been observed that two chimps might be locked in an intense struggle at one moment, and right after it is finished, they will make up and behave as if they were the best of friends.

What this all means can perhaps be best summarized by a passage from Jane Goodall that Andrew O’Keeffe has included in his book “Hardwired Humans” which says:

An understanding of the complex ways in which chimpanzees maintain social harmony within their community can provide valuable insights for dealing with tensions in a group of humans. And this; along with an understanding of the social skills required by chimpanzees to become successful alphas, will help humans becomes better leaders.

Chimps live in world where they often need to outwit other chimps in their social circle. For example, low ranking males can take advantage of female hypergamy to have sex with females behind the back of the alpha male. This is carried out using a lot of sneaking around and deception.

This requires a skill called tactical deception. Keeping up appearances and doing something else behind the back of someone else is a daily occurrence among chimps. A chimp needs to be a master of deception, but also needs to have the necessary skills to detect when he is being deceived by others.

Reading social situations correctly and striking at the right time is a huge part of an alpha’s or potential alpha’s success. If you want to become an alpha, you need to know when to strike and have all the necessary pieces in place when the opportunity arises.

Ntologi, the alpha at Mahale, was deposed by a coalition of males led by Kalunde. He fled into exile, wandering at the edge of his group’s territory by himself, but always monitoring the situation. Slowly he began to plot his comeback, first starting to associate with another ostracized male and then much later, calling in his former beta buddies with no political ambitions of their own.

Then at one particular instance, the opportunity presented itself. He came back and regained his alpha status. His coup d’etat was a success.

All these different aspects of group social dynamics make it mandatory that an alpha male has a very good ability to judge social situations. This is a prerequisite in order to be able to act in the right manner. Dale Peterson in “Chimpanzee Travels: On and Off the Road in Africa” has a good summary of this:

“A chimpanzee leader who is not enough of a stabilizer, a peacemaker, and who does not cultivate his subordinates, is likely to lose allies and in the end incite successful rebellions.

Stay tuned to discover traits 5-10 in the next parts of the series.

Click here to read Part 2.


If you haven’t already, go onto read about the 3 strategies chimps use to become the alpha males: Insights On Leadership From Chimp Alpha Male Behavior

We will explore status and achieving leadership in several future posts. However you need to note that this is not a how to guide. Something like that can never be written, since it would rely heavily on survivorship bias. When reading this, you also need to be aware that while chimps and humans do share a significant portion of their DNA, there are still some fundamental differences. Humans have a deeply evolved sense of speech and a much more complex culture. That said, there are still some very fundamental psychological factors shaped by millions of years of evolution that have a very strong impact on how humans behave and by using the example of chimps, we can illustrate some of these key factors very well. As with anything, read this with a grain of salt while also keeping one important definition in mind: alpha = leader (it’s a status thing).


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