The term Alpha Male is bandied about these days, but few men actually bother to explore what such a designation entails. While there are many advice columns and blogs out there that would have you believe being an Alpha Male involves insulting people, acting overtly macho with a swagger in your step, and a hard look for other guys who cross your path, it’s anything but that.
It’s important to understand that the concept itself stems from Anthropology and something called a prestige hierarchy. This framework describes how human groups organize themselves according to prestige, rather than physical dominance.
Alpha Males in this context are those who earn respect through actions of substance, courtesy, and generosity to all people, not always the ones with the loudest voices or the biggest muscles.
It’s crucial to differentiate prestige from dominance. An Alpha Male in modern, western society should most likely steer clear of overt displays of dominance, because they carry less social value. Therefore, while James Bond may be a good example for many Alpha Male traits, he scores poorly in two crucial regions for the context in which you must live and work. Excessive use of force, or other domineering behavior, and inherent misogyny also hinder this.
In this men’s guide, we’ll explore some of the most prevalent traits of the Alpha Male, which are often present across cultures. However, for our purposes, we’re dealing with the here and now.
This is the concept around which every other trait of the Alpha Male revolves. In today’s culture, self-respect is all too often confused with Ego. This is where the issue with the aforementioned advice columns comes into play. Many times, the image of the macho, muscular jerk is put forth as what guys should aspire to be.
What anyone worth their salt, including actual alpha males, can tell you is that when they see this guy, they don’t see an Alpha. Rather, they get the impression of posturing, which is what weak or insecure individuals do, puffing themselves up like threatened animals.
When you respect yourself, you value your time and that of others. You put forth quality work, whatever your profession. You listen when others speak to you, giving them your full attention. When a response is called for, you give a considered opinion, without claiming knowledge if you don’t have it. You have intrinsic value and you recognize the value in others.
Men at the top of the pecking order are not those who have never known disappointment or what we would term “failure.” The crucial difference between these men and others is often a matter of perspective and also perseverance. We often conceptualize the pathway to success or acclaim as a straight shot, with no lateral moves or stumbling blocks.
But the truth of life is that it is almost entirely made up of these events. While there are plenty of people who have success handed to them, it’s important to remember that these are not Alphas in the truest sense. They have no quality of character, do not understand how to improvise in an emergency, and lack any sort of staying power when the going gets tough.
These abilities are what lend a certain aura of Zen to real Alphas, as opposed to those who have not needed to develop deep inner reserves of strength and respect. If you never face a challenge, you can never be sure who you really are. Men of quality are not defined by their stock portfolio any more than they are by whether they have washboard abs or not.
But people sense their strength and their true quality whenever they deal with them. There is an inherent understanding that the end-goal of a life journey or plan is made up of every step taken to reach it. Truly Alpha Men maintain a balance of actively living in the moment and planning for the future—too much of either and success is never realized.
While there are many sources that will emphasize physicality and the ability to fight in an Alpha Male, perhaps it might be helpful to see it from another perspective. Alphas are typically in excellent physical condition, not because they feel the need of external admiration, but because they are active individuals.
Excellent fitness renders the many pursuits they enjoy far easier, and is often a natural consequence of their way of being. As well, tying it back to self-respect, your body is your vehicle for moving through the world and maintaining it in peak operating condition is important to personally satisfying success.
Some of the best activities and disciplines that will help you to hone your physicality and your own inner Alpha are any martial art, rock climbing, surfing, wilderness survival and long-term hiking adventures, and long-distance running.
Many men who enjoy these pursuits will tell you that each of them renders you ultimately aware of the way in which your body moves in space, the way factors in your immediate surrounding play off of one another, and the need to hone higher-level thinking processes in order to anticipate events and plan courses of action.
There is no place for arrogance or laziness on a rock face or inside the funnel of a wave. Practicing martial arts is also excellent because it teaches you that as your skill increases, your desire to utilize force as a means of conflict resolution decreases.
Now, you may not be an intellectual, and that’s okay. Being an Alpha isn’t about how much education you have, good grades in school, or even how many of the “great works” you’ve read. Rather, within the context of Western culture, it means that you have a deep, foundational understanding of ideas and the way the world works.
While you could elect to undertake an epic journey around the world, experiencing different cultures and places, a much easier way to achieve this is to read—broadly and deeply.
When you are conversant with philosophy, history, economics, the hard sciences, the arts, and fiction, too, you see the world differently. You’ll also come to recognize other Alpha Males, such as Marcus Aurelius or Sun Tzu.
The main reason an Alpha cannot simply be defined by physique is that there are countless true Alpha Males throughout history who have not been possessed of the will or skill needed to fight. True superiority must be defined as a quality not arising from the body, but from the personality, the mind, or the spirit. Individuals such as Mohandas Gandhi or Lao Tzu were Alpha Males, but they were not given to violent aggression or martial pursuits, whether or not they were capable of them.
Courage is another quality generally associated with the Alpha Male. However, this is far from synonymous with fearlessness or a lack of the understanding of consequences that follow your actions. Thucydides, a Greek historian who lived in the fifth century B.C. wrote, “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”
What that means for our purposes is that Alpha Males accept the challenges that life sends them. They seize opportunities, and do not allow the voices of fear of failure or a sense of inadequacy to argue them out of action. These men are active, even if reach out to take hold of an opportunity leads them to fall down, they get back up and continue to move forward.
What many modern men lack when it comes to this is the ability to take justifiable risks. There is no sense in exploring the distinction between Alpha and Beta Males, because it is a false one.
The true distinction lies between individuals who are willing to risk a little pain, a little setback or a deeper understanding of their own capabilities in order to gain something they truly want for themselves and those who are not.
If you are able to laugh at yourself first, no one else can lampoon you. Men who are known to be alphas are capable of making light of their mistakes, their shortcomings, and their failures before others, and then of moving on to the next moment.
This is because they don’t take themselves too seriously. It all ties back into the difference between self-respect and Ego. A man possessed of true self-respect understands that a misstep isn’t the end of the world, and is capable of seeing it in a larger perspective.
Ego hates to be made a fool of, and is also incapable of moving past a moment of weakness or insufficiency. Again, this is about perspective. When you act from a place of Ego, you are the most important thing in the room. Your actions assume colossal importance. You are incapable of seeing past yourself to the larger view of life.
A further aspect of the Alpha is the capacity to be a gentleman. While this need not be placed in the forefront, it is an essential aspect of nearly all truly great men. The ability to treat with gentleness those who are less able to defend themselves is a mark of exceptional strength of character. While we typically associate “weakness” with the feminine, it can also be applied to other men who may simply choose to be less aggressive in life.
Real men are not bullies, but the force that intercedes between the aggressive brutes of the world and those who cannot defend themselves—women, children, animals, and others. They utilize their strength and their physical skills in a protective capacity. This is what is meant by the cultural adage of “walking quietly, but carrying a big stick.” The truly powerful man does not need to broadcast his physical prowess, but is instead focused upon creating, doing, and interacting in a positive way with all whom he meets.
While powerful men do not deliberately call attention to themselves, they are always noticed. It is a way of being, of moving through the world, and of understanding the way in which elements of the world coincide, both in the human landscape and the natural one. Today, our concept of masculinity and greatness is still deeply rooted in the Stoic philosophy: the self-contained but consciously connected human cosmos.
It is evident in the active as opposed to reactive principal, the considerate and internally motivated achiever. These are ideas that have adhered to manliness since the height of Greek civilization—a primary basis upon which Western culture and thought are built. If you would be an Alpha Male, focus on being a human being you would respect and others will also.