Why nice chimps can still be champs
What business can learn from nature…and vice versa

In nature it is widely assumed that being the biggest and the meanest is the only way to become the alpha male with a choice of mates.  However in enlightened chimpanzee society, it appears that being nice can be equally powerful.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Jane Goodall Institute Center for Primate Studies gathered ten years of behavioural data on three male chimpanzees in Tanzania, each one an alpha male for some years.  Among these, the heaviest, Frodo was a quintessential bully with consistently high rates of aggression.  The lighter Freud displayed a mixture of mild aggression and moderate grooming. However, one of the park’s smallest males Wilkie followed a different path to alpha male status…

‘Wilkie was an obsessive groomer, attending to others far more often that his rivals did,’ recounts Matt Kaplan in Nature magazine.1 This chimp seemingly spent most of his time grooming his female partners, unlike most alpha males who only receive grooming from their partners. However despite his smaller size, Wilkie held alpha status for 3 years. These findings2 were the first to suggest that physically smaller males make up for their reduced physical characteristics by using grooming to make allies who will aid them when their time comes to try and achieve alpha-male status.

According to Elizabeth Lonsdorf a primatologist at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, this finally begins to quantify different strategies for attaining alpha status in males, which has not been well understood in the past. Apparently the view that bullies win out is changing. In Lonsdorf’s experience, no two alpha males at Gombe National Park had ever used the same strategy.

Interestingly, with elephants the herd is normally led by the oldest and largest female known as the matriarch –usually most closely related to the previous matriarch. However sometimes others are more successful leaders earning the herd’s respect through their wisdom, confidence and connections with other elephants and caring for the needs of the herd, being compassionate to their own herd as well as the members of other herds. If the elephant who is successful in doing this overpowers – not physically but simply by challenging authority in other ways – it is possible for that one to replace the existing matriarch.

Meanwhile in the workplace, executive coaches Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson note in their book Alpha Male Syndrome3 that ‘chest-thumping leadership style not only doesn’t cut it in today’s office, it also doesn’t work that well in the jungle’.

Research into baboons by Stanford Univeristy primatologist Robert Sapolsky found that the most brutish ones suffered the most stress and were not that good at keeping the status they fought so fearlessly to obtain. The baboons that go to the top and stayed there were the clever and collaborative ones who survived by forming coalitions.

Everyone needs some alpha traits to be successful – the drive for results, the ability to inspire people to do more than they thought possible, stresses Ludeman. While lesser mortals can cultivate those aspects, the pure alpha profile is born with an abundance of those characteristics. The most successful will adapt to their environment and grow in their position. As Ludeman and Erlandson conclude, the problem alphas find is that what gets you there, does not necessarily keep you there.

  • 1Grooming your way to the top by Matt Kaplan, Nature Magazine 9 Jan 2009 http.://www.nature.com/news/2009/090109/full/news.2009.12.html#B1
  • 2Foster, M.W. et al, American Journal of Primatology.71.136-144 (2009)
  • 3Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson, Harvard Business School Press, 2006

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