The Demise of the Alpha Male

Written by
Michael Wells

The Demise of the Alpha Male

Written by
Michael Wells

The Demise of the Alpha Male

Written by
Michael Wells
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"Is it better to pursue being an Alpha male... or an Omega male... or a Sigma male?"

Ever since the famous primate researcher Frans de Waal first coined the term "alpha male", it's been a popular term among men in describing what it means to be among the elite.

Frans was describing the leadership structure within primate groups, in which typically one male, and one female, hold a mostly-undisputed and fairly-well-regarded position as the leaders of the group.

They are recognized as the big enchiladas of the pack, and in general are given all the perks that the tribe can give them.... the best accommodation, first choice of food and mating partners. Maybe even the tastiest bananas.

These perks are nice. But they are not free.

There is a social contract among mammal communities, that the top dog's have to earn those perks, by protecting the tribe from danger- whether it's a prowling lion, or simply maintaining peace within.

So the alphas are expected to risk their necks for the tribe... and this is why they're adored.

If you're interested in more about this, see some of Simon Sinek's work, such as Leaders Eat Last.

"Ok, but we're mammals too. Doesn't the alpha male concept apply to human groups?"

If you watch Frans de Waal's TED talk, the way we're using the term now is wrong.

In fact, I can't think of anyone I know who fits the alpha male description- the guy who gets all the perks and social approval- but who also shoulders full responsibility for protecting the tribe, and is the first to charge at danger when it comes.

Politicians might be our charismatic, confident, elected leaders, but generally they're not so good at protecting the tribe. Many politicians just want the perks without the risk & responsibility... and that's not an alpha.

Personally, I think the idea of classifying men into types really isn't useful or meaningful.

When people ask me how to become "more alpha," I explain my views this way...

#1 - We're not just monkeys...

... and we have far, far, far more complex social structures than chimpanzees. It's very difficult to relate modern human social structures to a monkey tribe.

#2 - But we can learn a lot from monkeys - both in how we're similar, and how we've evolved to be different

Since we are mammals, and probably descended from monkeys - understanding the role of serotonin, competition, and dominance hierarchies is helpful in understanding some parts of our mammal-brain evolutionary psychology.

It might be why as a child, when someone beats you badly at something, your first reaction is anger (I feel threatened) and a desire to hurt them. In simple mammal groups this is how relative strength, confidence, and dominance are established - but this is not how socialized humans behave.

It might also be why "people pleasing" seems so fundamentally built-in. We strongly desire validation and adoration from others- because social approval is a big trigger for that lovely dose of serotonin. In general, we try to avoid pissing people off unless there's a clear advantage to it... and this mechanism would have evolved to allow mammal groups to form and not eat each other.

#3 - Where are the Tribes?

I think one of the main reasons alpha males and alpha females don't really exist among humans in any relateable form is that tribes are long gone.

One fundamental reason is- we've scaled. How the heck do you personally protect a million people? And that's a relatively small human society.

As human societies grew and evolved, the role of the alphas has been dispersed, and delegated. We have some people who lead, and different people who protect. Our societies also value reproductive freedom - the opportunity for anyone (not just the alphas) to father and mother their own families.

Ours is a different world than our monkey ancestors know.

If anything, you're probably in 40 tribes, and most of them are very loosely-defined, constantly-changing social groups.  You've got your workplace, your friends, your family, your apartment building and neighbors, and another 36 social activities and online communities...

Can you identify a single alpha in any of these groups?

I can't think of a single one in mine.

Remember the criteria...

  1. They must clearly and absolutely be identified as the top dog in the group
  2. They must be adored and respected by the group
  3. The group gives them all the perks
  4. They defend and protect the group from danger
  5. They pretty much get to have sex with anyone they want in the tribe, any time they want

"Ok so then if Alpha doesn't fit, how do you describe human social archetypes?"

Easily. I don't.

The lineal nature of our brain loves categorizing things.

Where people are concerned, we like to group people by gender, race, culture, educational or financial levels... we like to group people by social position and personality type.

We even rank attractiveness on a 1 to 10 scale.

So it makes sense someone would notice patterns and make an effort to describe and name them...

Alpha male, Beta male, Omega male, Sigma male.

But here's the central question-

Does it improve your life to fit someone else's arbitrary definition of these groups?

If you believe so, then how exactly?

You're a unique individual, with a unique personality and temperament. Why try to force your foot into someone else's shoe?

That seems very uncomfortable and pointless to me.

Instead, spend that mental energy on more useful things in your personal growth.

  1. Identify your strengths, and learn to capitalize on them.
  1. Identify your weaknesses, figure out which ones are impediments to what you want in life, and improve on them.

That's pretty much it. That's a clear path forward, to a better you.

Someday, you can label yourself it's it's important to you...

... but long before then, you'll have become the best person you can be, and that's the whole point.

Personal note- how I see myself and what I am aiming for in my social world

I don't think of myself as "alpha" or pursue that position in my social groups, even in groups that I founded.

I've found that more balanced, less-top-heavy social structures are far more powerful, flexible, and sustainable.

Even in my businesses - which are clearly "mine" - I've found it best if there are 2 or 3 partners who are equally valued, with equal authority, to share the burden and tackle problems together.

I might make the key financial decisions, or I might make the key product decisions, or I might make the key sales decisions... but creating a society where no one person hold all the power has huge benefits.

  • It gives you moments where you can rest, completely, knowing that you're not dropping the ball.
  • It lets you sleep better at night, knowing that you're not the only single point of responsibility for everything.
  • It helps you avoid blindness to important things you just didn't see. They way I like to describe this is that a single human only has two eyes and a limited field of view. Two humans, back-to-back, can see pretty much everything. That means the opportunities, and the risks, don't get easily missed.
  • It allows you to stay balanced, knowing someone else will challenge you when you're off track in your personal or professional life.

In my groups, I always seek to balance my own self-improvement with the improvement of the group, 50/50. That's the relationship I'm looking for- a strong degree of mutual benefit.

If either of us isn't getting value out of the relationship, something's wrong, and I'll adjust the relationship or in rare cases, find it's best to simply end it and invest elsewhere.

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First published on 
. Last updated on 
August 21, 2019

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      If you're interested in more about this, see some of Simon Sinek's work, such as Leaders Eat Last.