The Myth of the Alpha
A stag bends his head to dig in the snow for dried grasses frozen beneath the cold layers of white. With his snout in the snow, his eyes can’t see what’s coming up around him. His ears, however, are ever alert, and at the first snap of a branch he swings his head of antlers back up, looking around with wide black eyes. And there it is, the predator that is trying to creep up on this tasty meal without being seen – and failing. The young wolf dashes in too soon, startling the buck in the wrong direction – towards himself! He barely manages to get out of the way as the deer – and the other three wolves that were waiting for the ambush – come charging towards him and beyond.
A half hour later, the kill is made and broken into pieces with powerful jaws before being brought home to the pack’s den area. Last summer’s cubs are eager to eat, and as the hunters return, they lick at their elders’ lips joyously, thankful for the food. A dominant female wolf comes to inspect the kill, then licks the face of her mate of the last few seasons before chewing food up for her latest litter.
Another half hour passes before the youngest hunter slinks in to the pack’s circle. He immediately goes belly-up, supplicating himself before the strongest hunter, his mentor and father, the current ‘alpha’ male. His father’s muscles are tense, and he doesn’t make direct eye contact at his elder cub, a sign of his displeasure. Still, rolling around before his father, the youngest hunter tries to appease his elder with licking and snuffling, sneezing sounds. When his father has had enough, he snarls and shows his teeth, and the hunter backs off, retreating to the smaller cubs and the food, and the comfort of his mother’s presence. This is his father’s way of saying, okay, yes, you are forgiven, but don’t do that again.
So where’s the myth? Where is the aggressive display of displeasure over an omega wolf almost destroying the pack’s opportunity to eat, and being punished for it by being bitten and pushed to the outskirts of the pack’s territory?
It seems that when certain animals that many spiritual humans feel a kinship with are dominant, they show aggression and strength and gain preference for food and mates. They are the alphas, the bosses, the privileged ones. But how true is this belief, and why do humans cling to it like it’s a sash to be won in a pageant or a medal in a contest?
Why do people want to be the alpha?
In 1947 Rudolf Schenkel1 researched the behavior of wolves; more specifically, he based his findings on what he saw when studying a captive pair of wolves and their offspring of the last few years. Despite decrying his own erroneous use of the word and term alpha later on, a book written by L. David Mech2 called The Wolf continued to popularize the idea. Aggressive males and females dominated social groupings of animals, and possibly of humans, and the best way to survive was to strive to become an alpha.
Alpha humans are considered to be successful. They stand out in a crowd due to their posture, their physical prowess and presence, and their very “I don’t take anyone’s crap” attitude. They are often considered the best of us, and seem to have strong-armed their way into the highest echelons of society. They run businesses, can start out in the mail room but will end up as a CEO. They lead the team, know all the moves and tell people where to throw the ball, where to stand for defense and when to do a rush. And especially in dating, they swoop in to rescue the weak woman being plied with drinks by ‘losers’ and let her know what she deserves and where to get it. Alpha women don’t put up with ‘bs’ from men less than themselves, and are never abused, never shamed and regret nothing. Alpha humans stand up for their beliefs and make others fall in line very quickly or get ousted from the group. There’s no messing around with an alpha.
But are humans doing alpha the way animals are? According to author Faye Flam3 and Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky4, alpha males witnessed in animal groups in the wild do not handle the role the same way that humans have. Whether it’s in chimpanzees or gorillas, dogs or wolves, or some other group that allows both males and females to remain in the herd or pack or unit5, every member has a role. There is no omega as it were, that is despised and hated and expected to submit constantly to the alphas. There is no one getting preferential treatment while others suffer. In fact, in some animal societies, it’s the alpha that is the most giving, the most helpful and the most educating. Alpha males and females, and alpha pairs, typically are guides and mentors to their subordinates. They ensure everyone has a fair share of food and of responsibility. In some cases, the alpha female may not only breed with the alpha male.
There are different expectations of human alphas than what is witnessed in nature. Alpha males can be driven in business, hence their success rate and how companies prefer such men in the boardroom or on the sales floor. Alpha females are expected to be extra tough, with a refusal to play games and no attachment to any relationship so strong that she won’t walk away when things start to get nasty. However, it’s very misleading for humankind to see that dominance of any sort is critical to survival or rather, to living a healthy and fulfilling life. People are best serving themselves when they seek achievement on their own terms. Self-improvement is based on the individual’s desires and what is important to them.
Another aspect to human alpha syndrome is that humans often belong to multiple social units, whereas wolves for example belong to one pack and work as a family unit regardless of blood or relationship. All of the pack works to help all of that pack, while a human, male or female, may be a subordinate at work but a dominant personality in social gatherings. A janitor by day may be a superstar DJ at night. A dominant female lawyer may spend her evenings with wine and her television set, because what she is looking for has nothing to do with a desire to dominate others. Humans are multi-faceted, having many skillsets that apply in a variety of situations all at once. To seek to dominate in all of those situations can be frustrating, futile and self-defeating.
So what could people strive to be, if not an alpha?
Being alpha is less about the title and brag rights and more about the traits these roles epitomize. What is important to one person may not be important or valuable to someone else. A person could be great with technology but terrible at sports; neither of these things decides he is an alpha or a beta or even an omega. Some people are great at fixing cars, others at fixing computers. Neither is better than the other. A farmer who is successful may not wear the fancy clothes or go to the fancy parties that a lawyer in a city might attend. That won’t make his success any less. An alpha woman might be a board room brawler, a leader in sales, but a quieter woman with a softer approach may have better dating success.
The need to be an alpha may stem from an experience as being someone’s subordinate, which of course no one is. Many people who have survived abusive relationships or toxic situations are working hard to rise above their experiences. They want to make sure they never again feel the shame and humiliation of being put down beneath someone else, of not knowing their own worth. They’ve worked hard to value themselves, but instead of taking self-pride in this, they act out of fear and deliberately place themselves in an alpha position. They try to enter a room in a way that makes everyone look at them and recognize their alpha status. Their very manner and attitude warn ‘weak’ people from doing things to anger them. There is little room for mistakes with an alpha, little room for growth and the wisdom of trial and error. They are there to succeed at all costs, and that is what makes them destined for failure.
In the wild wolf pack, the hunter that didn’t follow the pack’s lead and charged in too soon, the one that spooked the deer and made the kill a lot harder than it had to be, still got fed. He still had the love of his parents and siblings and other pack members. He would not be ostracized for his mistake, nor would he be punished. These negative concepts of punishment and subordination are not alpha constructs; rather, they are human concepts that have no place in the animal world.
Do animals who behave badly in social groups or units experience consequences? Absolutely. In a baboon troop for example the alpha male is only an alpha until the subordinates beneath him decide to dethrone him. He has to maintain his status constantly, earning the love and admiration and respect of the rest of the unit. If he fails to protect the young from aggressive teenaged baboons, if he doesn’t patrol the territory with a band of fellow males to make sure the females are safely protected from kidnapping by adversaries, he will be duly taken down more than a notch or two. But he will still be fed and allowed to be part of the troop. He is still seen as family. If a chimp youngster continuously badgers an elder in his unit, other chimps, mostly female, will admonish him until the alpha male of the group comes down on him hard. But the youngster will still be family, is still a valued member of the pack, having learned his lesson.
So what can humans learn from how animals handle pack and family unit relations? How do humans succeed without doing whatever it takes, without dominating others, without a hierarchy that involves stepping on other people?
There are good qualities of an alpha in the wild and striving to portray those instead of the mere dominance factor could be a beneficial path to follow. An alpha brings people together and stands up for the underdogs. Alphas are resilient and while they don’t play games or take crap, they also allow others the room to make mistakes and experience growth and learning. An alpha is loyal to her tribe but not to the degree of causing tension, aggression or violence. Undermining others is not part of being an alpha; an alpha leaves no room for cattiness or backstabbing.
Alphas have a sense of self respect and dignity, and it is this that makes it so others offer them deferential treatment. To walk into a room and automatically command the attention of others is to walk in with a welcoming smile and a confident stride; not a stride that says “I rule here, all eyes on me,” but rather “I have a great opinion of my self and I am no threat to you, treat me with respect because I respect you already.”
In business and social settings, alphas don’t play gossip games, don’t make harsh judgments on others, and don’t put others down. Alpha women don’t talk badly of other women, and alpha men only compare themselves to others to see who they can help; alphas only look in another’s bowl to see if it is empty, so they can share with those in need.
Alphas are leaders, and leadership isn’t about telling others what to do. It’s often about showing others how to do things in this one way that has previously been successful while acknowledging there are other ways to do things that might also work; it’s being open to suggestions and ideas, not having a “my way or the highway” attitude. Leadership from an alpha is meant to bring others up, not subordinate others or push them down with a gnashing of jaws and the threat of social ostracizing. An alpha has a responsibility to others as well as themselves, to show others how to be confident without being hurtful, and is always aware that because all eyes are on them, they need to act with dignity, grace and respectful courtesy.
Finally, it’s important to show compassion when looking at the human side of alphas. Someone who is dominant in business or in social settings may be reserved and fatigued in their personal or home life. A dominant woman might want a dominant man in the bedroom, and vice versa. An alpha demonstrating the worst traits of the mythos of the alpha human may suffer from inferiority complexes and self esteem issues; it’s the small dog that barks and bites and nips after all, out of fear and anxiety.
A wolf doesn’t bark. It doesn’t have to. It’s a wolf.
References, Resources and Further Reading;
5 – Many animals that live in group or family units, such as orcas, hyenas, elephants, dolphins, meerkats and lions are run by a matriarchal alpha; young males will be forced to depart the group when they reach breeding age, and may take up with a group of similarly aged young males or strike out on their own to take over another older ailing male’s territory or find refuge in another family unit
6 – Miranda Hart: “It’s a real man who can go out with a woman who’s taller than he is. That’s an alpha male right there.”