It goes without saying that the world is in really bad way right now. As I write this, nations all around the globe are struggling to contain a global pandemic that has already claimed over 100,000 lives, infected more than 1.6 million people, and left millions more financially devastated. In addition to this, entire countries are locked down as shelter in place restrictions attempt to slow the spread of a virus that is overwhelming healthcare systems and has already significantly altered the course of human history.

Covid-19 is everywhere. It’s on our televisions and radios; in our newspapers and magazines. It’s on the tips of our tongues when we talk to our friends and family, and in the back of our minds with just about every decision we make.

Right now the world appears to be stuck in this morbid state of doom and gloom. We’re afraid. And we should be. We’re living through a fucking scary time with no clear ending in sight. We don’t know how long shelter in place restrictions will be needed, if our jobs are safe, or even when we’ll be able to see our loved ones again. But we do know that while each of us is trying their best to get through this pandemic, we’re collectively at risk of being overcome by the gravity of our situation if all we do is consume negativity.

So rather than talk directly about how Covid-19 has reshaped our lives, I want to talk about the relationship between the pandemic we’re living through and a long-misconstrued societal belief whose etymology is derived from wolves instead. 

About a year ago, I was visiting my Mum interstate. As we often do when I go home to see her, we were sitting around her kitchen drinking coffee and talking; catching up about all the little things that never seem to come up in conversation when we’re on the phone. I have no idea why, but for some reason our conversation on this particular day turned to the subject of masculinity; and in true Chris Nicholas fashion, my over confidence was on full display. As someone in his thirties who has experienced death, battles with mental health and masochistic behaviour, financial ruin, failed relationships, and family illness, I considered myself to be a man. I have taken a few big hits in life, and although I’ve been knocked down more times than I can count, I have always found a way to stand back up and face whatever life threw at me next.

But as Mum and I waxed philosophical about what it meant to be a man, she told me that she never really considered me to be a stereotypical alpha-male. The comment was supposed to be a compliment; and part of me took it that way. As a society, we often perceive an alpha character as a dominant individual with greater access to power, money, and respect. These people are often abrasive, intimidating, and sit at the top of a social status hierarchy.

When compared to these criteria, I wasn’t, am still am not an alpha-male. I like to keep fit, but am by no means the most powerful person I know. I’m prepared to fight for what I believe in, but I’ll never initiate conflict or be perceived as intimidating. And I have a couple of bucks in my back pocket, but I’m not exactly rolling around in piles of cash making frivolous investments without a care in the world. And yet, despite not meeting any of the criteria that society needed to consider me an alpha, Mum’s well-intentioned comment rankled me. Because if I wasn’t an alpha, then what was I?

So, I started researching what it truly meant to be an alpha.

The term alpha as society now knows it was first coined in during the 1940s by Rudolph Schenkel of the University of Basel in Switzerland as he studied a pack of grey wolves held captive in a zoo. During his study Schenkel observed as the wolves competed for status within their own sex, until over time, the pack established a clearly defined alpha pair, documenting his findings and sharing them with the world. Then almost thirty years later, the American scientist L. David Mech penned a book called The Wolf which built upon Schenkel’s findings and helped to popularise the concept of alpha and beta wolves within the pack.

Throughout their respective papers, both researchers noted pack dynamics that used competition to define rank. The duo used the phrase alpha to identify the wolves who used domineering, violence, and aggression to become the clear leader of a pack. The savage imagery that these papers presented was hugely appealing to popular culture, particularly in mediums such as film where an alpha could be defined as a win at all cost protagonist who would burn down an entire village just to serve his own selfish ends.

And so, thanks in part to these two studies (and a myriad of similar research papers), society began to use term alpha wolf as a term of endearment to define those members of our society that climbed the social, financial, or political hierarchy at any cost.  Thanks to stylised film and television, it became cool to be seen as a badass who didn’t give a shit, and who used animalistic dominance to achieve their goals. Because these characteristics were typically given to male roles within movies, the phrase was adapted, and the alpha wolf became the alpha male. He was the asshole you hated for his ruthlessness, but admired for his success.

Alpha Wolf

But it turns out that the studies used to define the hierarchy of man were flawed. The wolves in the two researcher’s studies weren’t in their natural environment while under observation. They were captives forced to coexist in a foreign climate that stunted their natural instinct. And so, operating in a high-stress situation, they turned on each other and used violence to determine their pack structure.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, researchers began to question the findings of Schenkel and Mech, tracking grey wolves in the wild to test their hypotheses. Until this point scientists had believed that independent and unrelated grey wolves formed packs each winter out of necessity. They thought that wolves lived in close proximity, and banded together during winter to increase their chances of survival, using dominance and violence to establish their pack’s structure.

But through this process of tracking the movements of packs, researchers learned that a pack isn’t a group of individuals drawn together by circumstance, it is a nuclear family of wolves that consists of two parents, and their children. The alpha of a pack is not the most violent, or aggressive. The alpha is simply a paternal figure who co-parents his offspring with his mate.

In his natural habitat, the alpha, like so many great father figures in our own species, treats his family with love, generosity and kindness. He’s notorious for playful roughhousing with his pups, and is even known to pay special attention to the upbringing of the runt of a litter. That doesn’t mean that the alpha is all warm and fuzzy though; wolves are still incredibly dangerous apex predators. And the alpha will ferociously protect his pack against a threat when he needs to. But, as renowned wolf researcher Richard McIntyre says:

The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf is a quiet confidence; quiet self-assurance. You know what you need to do; you know what’s best for your pack. You lead by example. You’re very comfortable with that.

Which means that not only did researchers like Schenkel and Mech get it wrong when they assumed that being an alpha meant being domineering (a viewpoint that Mech later  recanted). But it also means that society has it wrong when we assume an alpha to be intimidating or powerful; or even that their purpose in life is to serve themselves. Those are the characteristics of an asshole. An alpha is calm, level headed, knows what is best for their pack, and isn’t afraid to put the need of others above their own. They show sensitivity and love to those they care for, and are willing to do violence only when necessary.

Perhaps if my mum were to compare me against these criteria, rather than the misguided version of an alpha popular culture has led us to believe in, her opinion about whether I am a stereotypical alpha-male might have been different.

You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do Covid-19…

And you’d be right for doing so. The truth is, the concept of being an alpha has as much to do with Covid-19 as you allow it to.

As I said at the top of this post, the world is a very scary place right now. We’re surrounded by a perpetual feeling of doom and gloom. We’re worried about our families, our livelihood, and our future. But through all this uncertainty, we as individuals have been afforded with the opportunity to do something great. And that greatness is to be calm, to lead by example, and to be who your loved ones need you to be during a difficult time.

The last thing this world needs right now is the version of an alpha that society has been misled to believe is true. We already have an overabundance of assholes who put their needs before everyone else’s even without the added stresses of a global pandemic. Instead, the world needs more true alphas; leaders within family and friendship units who recognise that we’re living in uncertain times, who understand what their pack needs, and who have the self-assuredness and confidence to support and nurture the people they care about.

Whether that support is making your partner a cup of tea, turning off the television to play with your kids, or just phoning to check in on your friend or relative who may be struggling, every little moment of kindness matters in a time like this.

Years from now future generations are going to learn about the Covid-19 pandemic in schools. They’re going to learn about the lives lost, countries locked down, and the stories of human compassion that kept us all together. When that time comes, imagine how rewarding it would be to tell them that during one of the defining moments of our generation, you had what it took to be a true alpha, and that you made a difference in the lives of those you cared about. That rather than being a domineering asshole who thought the world revolved around you, you showed kindness and generosity even when others around you may not have. That you kept people safe, made sure that they were loved, and played your small part in a global effort to overcome adversity.

I know that it may not seem like it right now, but eventually this pandemic will pass, and our lives will return to some semblance of normality. It’s just going to take some time. Until then, stay home, stay safe, support your loved ones, and be a wolf.

Author: Chris Nicholas

Chris Nicholas is an author from Brisbane, Australia. He has published two novels, and is currently working on his third.

189 thoughts on “Alpha”

    1. A great insight and interesting read. Whenever my son and I get together we have long chats about all sort of things.

  1. This pandemic can become a testament to how the world reacts and is preparing for the unknown. A soft reset helps people step outside what’s been a routine (and what’s not working) & learn to adapt & recenter their priorities.

  2. Good post. I’m glad I read this post. It’s good to know that the natural attributes of an alpha wolf are not being domineering and aggressive towards one’s own packmates but being a good leader who is encouraging and self-assured. For us humans, it makes sense too. We’d never achieve anything if our leaders were all aggressive, vicious tyrants.

  3. Loved this whole piece, but this line had me smiling…
    “He was the asshole you hated for his ruthlessness, but admired for his success.”
    You nailed this thought!

  4. As a woman, the term “alpha male”has always had a negative connotation to me. I’ve been married to a kind, sensitive, intelligent man for 36 yrs and I wouldn’t trade him in for a stereotypical tough guy. As an aside, I couldn’t help but think of my pack of 3 dachshunds. The “alpha” does roll around and play with the puppy and lead the other two on walks. He’s only tough when he views danger to his sister or brother. From your writing, I had already gleaned that you were not an “alpha.” And, that is a compliment.

  5. I really loved your writing style. Truly, it felt like you could’t help but read on. Congratulations! And keep writing! 😊💫👏🏼

  6. Captivating post, Chris. Filled with insight born of openness and thoughtfulness. If we are to survive as a species, we definitely need alpha men who are, in your words, “calm, level headed, knows what is best for their pack, and isn’t afraid to put the need of others above their own. They show sensitivity and love to those they care for, and are willing to do violence only when necessary.”

  7. A very interesting take on the subject. I guess, different people have different connotations on the term Alpha male. In some cultures, being an Alpha does mean that you dominate. Not necessarily successful in every way possible, but in any way your group of friends seem to focus on. My ex-husband cheated on me because he wanted to seem like the Alpha in his group of friends – the one who gets the girls all the time. You are right that they are assholes and they will do things no matter what the cost is. Be glad that you are not an Alpha, people would rather be with someone true to themselves.

  8. This was a very interesting read. I like how you distinguished that there is a misconstrued concept of masculinity in our culture, and how you then defined true masculinity, especially with the role it has in times like these. Good thoughts!

  9. Thank you for this very helpful explication of “alpha male.” As a Canadian, I couldn’t help but think the mistaken notion of what it takes to be an alpha is on full display south of our border. And that is not the behavior that is going to get us through this pandemic. I will probably be quoting your rethinking of “alpha” in many conversations in the future.

  10. Read this early morning and it was like a voyage of discovery, unveiling one moment after another. Great post! All the best!

  11. This is so encouraging! I loved your writing and the theme. So often the image of a man in our society is distorted. You nailed what it really means to be a man, someone who gives to others, leads with compassion in a partnership and plays with his children. I love it! I so appreciate someone speaking truth about what a real man is like. Thanks for reading my blog too!

  12. Wonderful post. Thank you Chris for properly defining ‘alpha male’. Do you not think the same definition can apply to the true ‘matriarch’ as well as the ‘patriarch’? The grand mother who mediates in disputes between siblings and calms everyone down in a crisis with her wise words? We need those, too.

  13. First, thanks for liking my Green Fish post. I hope you try the recipe some day.

    I’m not an animal favorite and would not readily be drawn to books or blogs containing animal titles except someone recommends them. No wonder I never heard the word alpha male. I’m also writing The Patriarch on my site and might borrow the term. I agree with franklparker’s comments about your definition applying to ‘matriarch’ and ‘patriarch.’

    I was drawn to the title of your post, Alpha.and like it. I learned a couple of things.too. Thanks

  14. Very interesting read. It’s just facinating how to co-realted the covid 19 and alfa wolf. I so agree with the traits you described for Alfa male. Keep blogging. ✌🌸

  15. I can imagine some circumstances when being a domineering a-hole is helpful. (Like leading people out of a forest after a plane crash, for example.) But even then, it’s not appropriate for someone to think the world revolves around him or her. That’s just being a narcissistic a-hole.

  16. Loved this! I hear the term “alpha male” used for the stereotypical ladies’ man, and that stereotype is the domineering asshole and bad boy you described. But in my experience, I think the man the ladies really prefer is the alpha the way you described him. That’s true masculinity. The truly masculine men are just more rare and snapped up and off the market sooner, and being decent guys, they’re not running around being the stereotypical ladies’ men. As to survival of the fittest used as an excuse for unhealthy competitiveness, I’ve always thought that cooperation beats competition in the survival of the fittest any day. Certainly for the species. Very interesting read, thanks!

  17. Great post; I’ve always been fascinated by this subject. I spent my youth being drawn to the ‘bad boys’ who revelled in their perceived role.

  18. Thought provoking stuff! I love the idea of an Alpha wolf as a paternal figure, this feels like it makes so much more sense. 🙂

  19. Podcast – This is Love – has an excellent episode on wolves that focuses on one alpha and his pack – an enormous alpha was raised by a runt – who taught him how to be an alpha but as a true leader – i.e. how to fight & win without killing. But you know the female actually makes all the decisions. She’s the brains of the operation, I guess. Another great story – a group of … baboons? orangutans? – anyway – all the alphas died because they get to eat first and the food they were eating was tainted. The remaining group was a lot happier, less stressed, more egalitarian. Cheers

  20. Extraordinary read. Pleasure to follow. Excellent reveal of an unquestioned social meme overdue for debunking!

  21. First of all, thanx for this post – great advice for how we all should try to be, through the pandemic and beyond.
    There are certain animals that I’ve had an affinity for for as long as I can remember – wolves are at the top of the list. Funny thing is, I’ve never studied them – I just FEEL them, and what I’ve felt is much closer to what you say that reality is now known to be. I think that’s the direction that my story “The Wolves Will Come” came from – the main character (who is not a wolf) leads as the alpha you describe.
    You also reveal a fault in believing scientists just because their scientists. All of us have biases that color how we interpret what we see (how rational my rationale…)
    thanx again!

  22. I should tell my aunt about this, she has studied wolves back in the 1970s/80s. The overall message of the post really resonates with me. But I guess the understanding of healthy leadership that aims to foster not divide, needs to take root in the minds of more people. Thanks for throwing a seed, so to speak.
    I’ve always hated how the image of the wolf has been used to explain or even justify aggressive, violent behaviour.

  23. I came by to say thanks for the like on my poorly written post only to find a very well thought out article on the correlation in alphas (man/wolf) as well as the standards by which society judges both. As a father of three it has been on the forefront of my mind just what a successful leader and man is and how that differs from what a majority of people would call that man.

  24. Thank you very much for that article! I have to say that up to now I never read stuff about Covid-19. Then, like most of nowadays folks, I tend to read just very short writings. Both tendencies were proven wrong by your writing :-). …”to lead by example, and to be who your loved ones need you to be during a difficult time.” = wonderful conclusion! And the loved ones have not to be blood-relations, and this might be the prime difference between wolves and men,
    Thanks again! Thomas

  25. Great analogy Chris – well written and interesting!

    And btw in your interview about your life, you reminded me that listening to music it so therapeutic – thanks for reminding me to listen. The minute I read that, I stopped and put some of favorite music on! So you have already made a difference in my life even just by that reminder…

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