When a chimpanzee claims the role of alpha male, there is rarely a peaceful transfer of power. The new leader, who is being watched carefully by the rest of the social group, must physically defeat his predecessor. It is a noisy affair, punctuated by screams, stomps and bruised egos. In the end, a new leader emerges.

Human leadership is similar to that of our closest ancestors, with the rise to alpha status all too often requiring overt displays of dominance. Studies show that people prefer dominant leaders, especially during times of instability.

Donald Trump has led as a domineering alpha. He has spun stories of his physical prowess and tried to lead by decree rather than democracy or conciliation.

As psychologist Dan McAdams wrote in 2017, “Trump leads (and inspires) through intimidation, bluster, and threat, and through the establishment of short-term, opportunistic relationships with other high-status agents.”

In true chimpanzee fashion, Trump has even thrown figurative feces – name-calling better suited to a child’s playhouse than the White House – at every potential rival.

Until now, this has been a largely successful strategy.

There is, however, another way for primates to lead. Some chimpanzees gain and maintain power by way of strategic alliances and social intelligence. These alpha males will work together to cooperatively overpower larger males.

Friendships form and are carefully maintained. Some primate leaders even shower subordinates with favors, in the form of grooming or sharing meat with those they wish to win over. For these primates, leadership is not a solitary venture but a collaborative endeavor.

At Gombe, Jane Goodall’s long-term field site, one chimpanzee named Mike famously rose to power after impressing the other chimps by stealing several large cans from the human camp and banging them around the forest. Mike, who had previously been a low-ranking male, dethroned Goliath, a bold alpha, and held power for several years. He is remembered for using intelligence and creativity to gain his power.

With Joe Biden’s election, we see these alternative types of leadership. Biden has long led through partnership and compromise. He doesn’t bully his opponents, but instead speaks of change and alliance.

Biden is frequently defined by his compassion, with supporters sharing stories of his kindness during difficult times. George W. Bush last week called Biden a a “good man.” And leaders around the globe have responded to Biden’s election with their enthusiastic support, references to friendship and alliance and a desire to work together in the future.

But even with a more collaborative leadership style, Biden’s election maintains the traditional patriarchal governance that defines chimpanzee society and dominates human politics.

Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential debates with Donald Trump, was rated as higher in prestige but significantly lower in dominance. People clearly struggle with seeing women as dominant leaders. By choosing Kamala Harris as his vice president, Biden has widened his strategic alliances as well as hers.

As for Trump, what befalls a former alpha who has been deposed? When a chimpanzee is overthrown, his future is unstable and uncertain. Research suggests that his fate will depend on his ability to form supportive relationships with other males. Without these connections, some defeated males are harassed and attacked until they are evicted from their social groups.

It remains to be seen what Trump’s future holds, but primate studies tell us it will rely on his ability to get along with others.

On Jan. 20, 2021, the country will officially have a new leader from whom we can expect more grooming and less feces flinging – a leadership style that is evolutionarily successful.


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