Frans de Waal: What Qualities Make A Good Leader ... In Chimpanzees? What makes an "alpha male?" Primatologist Frans de Waal says we often get it wrong. His research shows that alpha males possess leadership traits like generosity, peacekeeping, and empathy.
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Frans de Waal: What Qualities Make A Good Leader ... In Chimpanzees?

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Frans de Waal: What Qualities Make A Good Leader ... In Chimpanzees?

Frans de Waal: What Qualities Make A Good Leader ... In Chimpanzees?

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On the show today, Anthropomorphic, what we can learn about ourselves by observing animals, including our closest relatives. So what's the story about Amos?

FRANS DE WAAL: Yeah. Amos, he was a handsome male.

RAZ: A handsome chimpanzee male.

DE WAAL: We distinguish these things in chimpanzees, also. He was a handsome male. He was beautiful and very intimidating physically, but he rarely used his superior force.

RAZ: This is Frans de Waal. He's a primatologist at Emory University. And Amos, he was an alpha male.

DE WAAL: Yeah, Amos - sort of interesting story because he was a very popular alpha male. And alpha males become popular if they keep the peace and keep everybody happy and bring harmony to the group. That's the ones that they really like in chimpanzee society.

RAZ: But then Amos got sick.

DE WAAL: Yeah, I think liver complications...

RAZ: Of course, that sort of thing can happen, but what's significant, says Frans...

DE WAAL: When he got sick...

RAZ: ...Is what happened next.

DE WAAL: The group cared for him. So there were females who would bring him wood wool and put it behind his back while he was panting very heavily and sweating a lot. He was extremely sick at that point. And so I felt, well, this is a nice way to go for a male in the sense that he dies very popular, whereas in many alpha males, that's not the case.

RAZ: I mean, it would suggest that he was a good leader, that he was actually...

DE WAAL: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Right? - that he actually cultivated leadership qualities that made him liked.

DE WAAL: Yeah. We need to make a distinction between dominance and leadership. So there are males who can be the dominant force, but those males - very often, if they're alpha, they end poorly in the sense that they get kicked out or they get killed, sometimes, in the wild. There's reports of that. And then you have the males who have leadership qualities, who break up fights. They defend the underdog. They groom. They console. If you have that kind of alpha male, then the group really rallies behind him. And they can sometimes stay in power for a long time.

RAZ: Now, for a lot of us, this may not sound like what an alpha male is supposed to be.

DE WAAL: If you go to Amazon, and you type in alpha male, you get all these business books about how to be an alpha male...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Gentlemen, in this world, there are two types of men.

DE WAAL: ...The male that women flock to...


CHAD PRATHER: You know what women like? They like men.

DE WAAL: ...How to be a male...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You cannot be dominant if you're emotional.

DE WAAL: ...That everyone respects.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I think of a pack leader.

DE WAAL: And what they basically describe in these books is bullies.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Alphas are strong. Betas are weak.


DE WAAL: And I really don't like that kind of description because I'm actually partly responsible for the term alpha male...

RAZ: Frans de Waal continues his idea from the TED stage.


DE WAAL: ...Because I wrote this book, "Chimpanzee Politics," which was recommended by Newt Gingrich to freshman congressmen. I don't know what good it did, but he recommended that book to them. And after that, the term alpha male became very popular, but I think it is used in a mischaracterization. It's used in a very superficial way that doesn't relate to what a real alpha male is. And so that's - I'm here to explain what that is. The term itself goes back, actually, much further. It goes back to the '40s and '50s - research on wolves. And basically, the definition is very simple. The highest-ranking male is the alpha male. The highest-ranking female is the alpha female. Every primate group has one alpha male, one alpha female. And I will explain how that goes.

RAZ: All right. So say you've got a group of 25 to 40 chimpanzees, right? What is the process of becoming alpha? How does it unfold?

DE WAAL: So you have, usually, an established alpha male who needs to be unseated. And that's very difficult, especially if that alpha male is popular because then the females support him, and he has, usually, a few male supporters, as well. So a younger male who - usually, it's a younger male who wants to take his position - will first of all do a lot of indirect challenges. He will beat up a female that is a favorite of that alpha male but far away from him to see what happens. Or he will bang on the doors or throw around rocks, and he's sort of testing that alpha male. And if the alpha male doesn't react, then he's going to do it closer to him. Now, if the alpha male keeps unresponsive, so to speak, then the younger male is going to seek support. And he's going to groom other males to see if they are willing to support him because it's a very risky thing to start challenging an alpha male.


DE WAAL: But other things that you need to do is you need to be generous. So for example, males who go on a campaign to dethrone the leader - which may take two or three months, where they're testing all the coalitions in the group - they also become extremely generous. They share food very easily with everyone, or they start to tickle the babies of the females. They're normally male chimpanzees not particularly interested in infants, but when they're campaigning like that, they get very interested in infants. And they tickle them, and they try to curry favor with the females. So in humans, of course, I'm always intrigued by these men who are candidates and hold babies up like this. This is not particularly something that babies like, but...

RAZ: OK, at this point in your TED Talk, Frans, you're actually showing a slide of a politician holding a baby over his head.

DE WAAL: Yeah. I think it's in order to demonstrate, look at me. I can hold a baby without dropping it. You know, I'm a great alpha male. You should vote for me.

RAZ: So, I mean, in the case of chimpanzees, do they change their behavior once they, like, win over the group and become the alpha?

DE WAAL: Well, yeah. There's a big difference between the climb to the top and being at the top because now, all of a sudden, this male needs to rule over the group, needs to break up fights between others, needs to be there when there is a dispute and everyone is looking at him to see what he does. And the best alpha males, I think, are impartial.


DE WAAL: This is a male who stops a fight between two females.


DE WAAL: The females on the left and the right have been screaming and yelling at each other over food.


DE WAAL: And so he stops the fight between them and stands between them like this. And it's very interesting to me that alpha males - when they do this, they become impartial. They don't support their mom or their best buddy or - no, no. They stop fights, and they come up for the underdog in general. And this makes them extremely popular in the group because they provide security for the lowest-ranking members of the group. And so they become impartial, which is an unusual condition for a chimpanzee to be in because they're usually very fond of their friends and so on. And these alpha males who are good at this - they can be very effective at keeping the peace in the group.

RAZ: Coming up, how even the best alpha males struggle to stay on top. On the show today, Anthropomorphic. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, Anthropomorphic. And we were just hearing from primatologist Frans de Waal about chimpanzees and the power struggle to become and to remain the alpha male. I mean, it doesn't seem like an alpha male could ever be, you know, relaxed or completely comfortable. Eventually, you know, someone will come after the leader. Like, someone will try to overthrow them, even if the alpha male is good.

DE WAAL: Yeah, so I've seen alpha males who thought, I'm sure, that they were secure in their role, and all of a sudden, someone challenges them and doesn't step out of the way when they walk up to them and things like that. And then they panic, and then they start screaming. Sometimes, they throw a tantrum like a baby chimp when they realize, there's this other male who doesn't take me seriously anymore. And then they really fall apart sometimes.

RAZ: Do we know - is there an average length at which an alpha male retains his position?

DE WAAL: Yeah. I would say typically in a group, like, for three or four years, an alpha male stays in power. There are males who have - there's one report in the wild, for example, of an alpha male who stayed in power for 12 years.

RAZ: Wow.

DE WAAL: He had a whole bribery system down. He would - he was not a particularly good hunter, but he would confiscate the meat hunted by other males and then distribute it himself. He was very politically astute, and he would make sure that his supporters - which he had quite a few - that his supporters were kept happy.

RAZ: I think we humans have a tendency to at least want to know whether the lives and the organization and the organizing principles of primates are similar to our own. I mean, we have a very similar system and structure.

DE WAAL: Yeah, so you shouldn't be surprised by that. That's - we are very closely related to the chimpanzees.

RAZ: Yeah, yeah.

DE WAAL: And so first of all, we are a hierarchical species. And if you walk into a room or, let's say, a boardroom of a company, you can see within a second what, approximately, the hierarchy is among those people. So we are a very hierarchical species, and I think we have derived all these tendencies from other primates. It's not something that we invented. We have surrounded them with more symbolism. We are a very symbolic system. We have certain dresses and certain thrones and certain rituals that reinforce that hierarchy. So we have a more complex and elaborate cultural environment that we create around the hierarchy, but the basic principles are not so different, I think.


DE WAAL: So the message I want to leave you with is that if you are looking at men in our society who are the boss of, let's say, a family or a business or Washington or whatever - you call them alpha male. You should not insult chimpanzees by using the wrong label.


DE WAAL: You should not call a bully an alpha male. Someone who's big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male. An alpha male has all sorts of qualities, and I have seen bully alpha males in chimpanzees. They do occur, but most of the ones that we have have leadership capacities and are integrated in their community. And like Amos at the end, they are loved and respected. And so it's a very different situation than you may think. And I thank you.


RAZ: That's Frans de Waal. He's a biologist and primatologist at Emory University. You can see all of his talks at

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