What do Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, and Al Pacino have in common? Despite being film legends, all three exude alpha. We all know the alpha male stereotype – a man who is a natural leader, strong, charismatic and unapologetic. Usually, we equate alpha traits with domineering qualities and, often, with aggressive tendencies. Scientific research on the traits of alpha wolves and their packs, however, paints a different picture.
Over the past twenty years, wolf researcher Rick McIntyre has been observing wolves in free-living packs in Yellowstone National Park. McIntyre is methodical in his approach. Every morning he rises early, uses radio telemetry to pinpoint the location of packs via a radio-collared pack member, and then heads out with a spotting scope to observe the animals. During each observation, McIntyre takes careful notes of the wolves’ activities.
During his time with the gray wolves, certain traits and behaviors started to emerge. Despite what we associate with the term “alpha male,” the ranking member of the pack was not forceful, domineering, or aggressive to other members of the pack. Instead, the alpha wolf displayed characteristics like quiet confidence and self-assurance. The gray wolf alphas appeared to lead by example, and in most instances had a calming effect on their clan.
To McIntyre, this behavior was not entirely surprising. In the realm of human interaction, think of how an emotionally secure man of a great champion conducts himself. They don’t puff. They don’t attack. There’s no need to prove anything because they’ve already proven it.
Underlying the behaviors of the alpha wolves seems to be a type of evolutionary logic. If a pack is violent and its members are in constant competition, they are less likely to survive than a more peaceful, cooperative and sharing unit. In all the years McIntyre has been observing the gray wolves, rarely has he seen an alpha male act aggressively toward other pack members. The rest of the pack is his family.
This does not negate the fact that alpha wolves are fiercely protective of their pack. Alpha wolves are tough when necessary, like when defending their pack from a rival pack. But this behavior simply doesn’t extend into every pack interaction. McIntyre noted that while an alpha male may be a major player in a successful hunt and takedown of prey, he might step away and sleep until his pack has eaten and is full.
And let’s not forget about play. Even the strongest gray wolf alphas devoted quality time to pack pups, whether wrestling or nurturing the little ones. The assumption would be that this was the female wolves’ job, but not so. In fact, the female wolves have another important role – running the show.
As any married man will tell you, behind every successful man is a woman. The same is true for gray wolves. According to McIntyre, females in the packs do most of the decision-making. They decide where to travel, when to hunt, when to rest. The matriarch’s personality sets the tone for the whole pack.
So it seems that our alpha male stereotype could use some revision, and men can learn how to be successful from wild-roaming wolves. Think leading by example, dedication in the care and defense of families, respect for females, and sharing responsibilities. Couple that with less snarl and more quiet confidence, and you have a winning alpha recipe. But ladies, don’t forget who’s really in charge.