Frans de Wall has spent 40 years working with chimpanzees, studying their emotions and relationships.  In his book Chimpanzee Politics (1982) he c oinedthe term Alpha Male, but he insists that this term was so misinterpreted that in his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he has written a chapter explaining how the concept was completely misappropriated.

Apparently, the Alpha leaders among chimpanzees are seldom the domineering, aggressive bullies we connect with leaders who force their way to the top of the tree – these ones are frequently dethroned by coalitions of their underlings.  The most successful Alphas get there by forming mutually-beneficial alliances.

More importantly, the Alphas defend underdogs, comfort the distressed, maintain peace and resolve disputes.  Significantly, they hug others more than any other chimp in the pack.  The underlying message is that the most effective leaders care for the weak, build teams and ensure unity.  Where have we heard that before?

Jesus would not be the first person we think about when we hear the words alpha male, but clearly as the greatest ever leader he embodied the traits outlined above.  He washed his disciples’ feet, a task so demeaning that some rabbis argued that no Jews should do it, not even a Jewish slave.  He then told them:

“If I, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

(John 13:14)

We are understandably squeamish about the physical washing of other people’s feet, so we prefer to interpret this today as prioritizing care for the most needy, which is exactly what Jesus did.  St Paul was clearly keen to do likewise (Galatians 2:10).  He is often portrayed as more alpha male than Jesus, but look at how he claims he led the Thessalonian church – “gently, like a nursing mother tenderly caring for her children” and “exhorting and encouraging each one, just as a father would his own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11).

So why is it that we, who are committed to defending the marginalized, promoting harmony and building teamwork, still end up with some leaders who appear to have pushed their way to the top and seem intent on staying there by force?  Where are the community builders who with meekness and humility forge and unite a team, and lead with gentleness rather than drivenness?

Becoming meek is an outworking of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  It takes time, and active co-operation with God at work in us.  Frequently it requires elements of withdrawal from work, community and daily life in order to reflect and to listen to God as we process the things that happen to us.

So the meek, far from inheriting the earth, may be overlooked when leaders are being selected, because they are not so visible, possibly seen as not so competent, and therefore can more easily be overlooked than those whose confidence makes their presence felt wherever they go.  The more visible candidates may seem as if they present strong leadership qualities, but this may end up being at the expense of their own people.

The real alpha leader is probably serving right there on the sidelines, picking up the pieces of broken team members and working to maintain team cohesion.  Though he or she may never be recognized as a leader, they may be achieving more for the team than the leader in whose shadow they serve.