I had one of those nights in which I surfed the web to find myself at a TED talk. This one was about chimpanzees and their leading structure. I have never heared of the speaker, Frans de Waal, beforehand but just the topic intrigued me. So, let us see how monkey alpha males work.


The talk

I came passed this talk about apes and their dominance hierarchies. Since leadandled.com copes with issues of leading, I thought that it is a good idea to have a small review of the information given.

Mr. de Waal shows that our perception of alpha males in is not reflected by one of our closest DNA neigbours: The apes, specifically the chimpanzees – but he relates some of his research to Banboos to proof his points, as well.

Dominant males in nature …

  1. judge fights between members of their pack usually in favour of the weakest.
  2. do not favor their own family members.
  3. are amongst the highest stress level of the pack.

The last point is very interesting. Mr. de Waals shows a simplified version of a study about Bonobos which looks similar to this:

Stress level of Bonobos traced in their fecal matter

This study measured the remains of hormons in their fecal matter and matched the fecal matter to their hierarchical position within the apes’ pack. Interestingly, the ends of the social structure are having highest level in stress and the mid tends to go down in stress. de Waal explains that the reason is that the extreme positions have to very careful because they have to take extra attention to all other pack members. 

Also, he showed that alliances within the pack can overcome stronger opponents. So in this regard, the strength of a single animal might be not the key to get into the hierarchy’s top. It is the building of alliances and positive social connections.

Alpha males – social and business

In human societies, the alpha male is considered to be the strongest leader. The difference between ape alphas and human alphas has to be taken into account in which hierarchical pyramide they are in. For example, most alpha males are considered alpha in business related topics. This role within a business structures is not chosen by a vote from the pool of the employees but from the owner or the chair(wo)men. Thus, the social structure  of the apes cannot be directly related to the business structure. 

However, if you try to relate the behaviour directly, it is interesting to see that the alpha male behaviour of apes is counterintuitive to the broader understanding of human beings. Even in family centered hierarchies, alpha males are not considered as caring much but rather as strong. 

It made me think very hard about situations of supporting leaders. Of course, people like Simon Sinek are considered to be the “caring first” guy. But would you consider them as alpha males? I have my personal doubt though they might are out of the hierarchical context. In fact, I think that they are factual leaders without playing the dominance role card.

My point here is that the hierarchical structure in a company which is not dynamic by the choice of the pack’s dynamic but more driven by the interest of upper hierarchical positions empowering people directly into lower positions. Thus, bad behaviour is not punished directly by peers to put the person in place but rather has to be escaleted for judgement. This control cycle makes the view towards upper position as dominant and does not imply a caring expectations – however, for long term survival they should be caring. You do not want to lose people from your pack – the pack is all that matters.





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