Chimpanzees have three main strategies which they use to become alpha male; dominance, intelligence and forming political alliances.
The majority of the time dominance is the chosen approach. The chimpanzee is bigger and stronger than the other male chimpanzees, or they have greater aggression and fighting skills. They therefore fight their way to the top and once there they keep fighting to stay there.
As an example consider the case of Pimu, a chimpanzee who was alpha male of a troupe living in Tanzania. He had led his troupe since 2007, having gained and maintained his position through intimidation, threat and violence. In 2011 he attacked one of the other male chimpanzees of the troupe, Primus. Primus called for help and three other male chimpanzees went to his aid. The four of them formed an alliance and attacked and killed Pimu.
Pimu actually had a pretty good innings for a chimpanzee alpha male relying on dominance alone. On average this strategy is successful for around 2 years, although most falls from grace don’t involve regicide.
I know a number of human managers who take a dominance approach to getting on at work. They are the ones who seek the power and fight to get there so that they can enjoy it. They are the ones who like to use their ‘tone of authority’ to signal that disagreement isn’t appropriate. I quite enjoy pretending that I don’t understand what the ‘tone of authority’ is trying to convey and continue anyway. Apparently murder isn’t an acceptable answer in human society and as such domineering and bullying managers tend to stay around for longer than 2 years.
Other chimpanzees become alpha male through using their intelligence.
As an example consider Mike, a small low ranking male who in Tanzania in 1964 became alpha male through use of his brain rather than his brawn. He stole an empty gasoline can from the researchers’ camp and was playing with it when he noticed that other chimpanzees ran away from the noise it made as he played because they didn’t know what it was. He realised that if he ran at the other males making loud noises with the can in addition to the noises he made himself he could intimidate them. He added multiple cans to his routine and scared the other males into submission, becoming alpha male.
The third strategy to become alpha male is through forming political alliances, in an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of way.
As an example consider Lubutu, who is alpha male at Taronga Zoo in Australia. He became alpha male by default at the age of 8 as the previous alpha male died and there were no other adult males at the time. He built an alliance with the females of the troupe. In a highly unusual move for an alpha male he spends time grooming the high and low ranking females as well as playing with their young. He is a popular leader despite not being the largest male in the troupe. He has faced many challenges from larger males, including one from Chimbuka, who is much bigger and stronger. When Chimbuka challenged he was fought off by 17 females. Lubutu became alpha male in 2001 and is still in position 14 years on.
On average, chimpanzees who choose to lead through political alliances tend to stay as alpha male for around 10 years; far longer than those relying on dominance.
This is the equivalent of the human leader who is there for the team. They support the team and aim to get the most out of them. They represent the team to the rest of the business and they have the team member’s backs. Any of you who have worked in teams like this know the power and commitment which this type of leadership can engender.
The Best Strategy of All…
From the information above you may believe that the best strategy is to form political alliances. To some extent that’s true. However, the chimpanzees which stay longest as alpha males are those which combine strategies. They might become alpha male through dominance and then move to a political alliance approach after they get there. An even better approach is for the chimpanzee to adjust his strategy depending on who he is dealing with, using political alliances with some and dominance with others.
This combining of approaches also works in the human world. In a study of 55 teams within 15 multinational companies it was found that the most productive and innovative teams had leaders who were able to be either task or relationship oriented and who chose which leadership style to use depending on the stage of the project. At the early stages they were task-oriented, making the goal clear and clarifying team member responsibilities. Later on they would switch to building relationships and hence building the team.