Dr. Edward O. Wilson, renowned biologist, ecologist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, explores in his new book The Social Conquest of Earth where we come from, where we are, and where we’re going, framed from the perspective that it is altruism between groups that will enable the human race to succeed. In an effort to address these religious and philosophical questions, Wilson posits that every decision a person makes entails a competition of individual vs. social interests and consequences. This conflict is inborn and is the basis for moral reasoning.
He reinforces the idea that we humans are extremely group-oriented with an intense desire to belong and an intense interest in what others are thinking and doing. Our social intelligence is made up of our behaviors around bonding with others, dominance, and observation. This makes a lot of sense when thinking about the explosion of social media, which provides the perfect outlet to learn what others are thinking and doing while we attempt to bond through common interests and contribute to and belong to an online community.
Then there’s the notion of altruism (social interests) competing with selfishness (individual interests) that Wilson raises. When learning of Wilson’s theory, what popped into my mind was Servant Leadership, the approach to leadership developed by Robert K. Greenleaf that emphasizes being a humble steward of an organization’s resources through paying attention to the needs of others. As a fan of Servant Leadership, it’s easy to see that altruism has a role to play in leadership development – putting others above self to effectively lead a team and/or an organization.
Wilson’s work has stirred a larger debate over altruism vs. selfishness and if altruism can really stick. As Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker asks in his review of Wilson’s book, “Can true altruism even exist? Is generosity a sustainable trait? Or are living things inherently selfish, our kindness nothing but a mask?” These are interesting questions to ponder, for sure. I would like to think, though, that altruism does truly exist and that leaders of all types act in the best interest of others every day – they may just not garner as much publicity as those who don’t.
There’s a great story about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge that appears in the work of author and professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, Henry Petroski that serves as a good example of altruistic leadership. If I remember correctly, the story involves a contractor who noticed that a bad gauge of wire was getting into the cables of the bridge as it was being constructed. When the contractor approached the Board of Directors about the problem and his solution of putting in his own wire to fix it, they said “no,” due to it being a conflict of interest in their minds. The contractor then went ahead and mixed in his high-quality wire with the bad wire, defying the Board, but saving the bridge from potential disaster. While not necessarily a good example of following orders, the contractor put his own neck out there to do what he thought was right. He could have easily been caught and fired on the spot, yet acted in the best interests of others to help build a solid bridge that has stood the test of time. This contractor was not in a leadership position in the hierarchical sense, yet he definitely behaved as a leader.
There are many examples of well-known altruistic leaders: Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, etc. I had the privilege of working for one a few years ago while I was still in the telecommunications industry. Though I have a good 12 years on him in terms of age, he is still one of the best leaders I’ve worked with in the last 20 years. This is due to his unwavering support in my ability, his ability as a coach to help work through issues, his skill at listening, and his ensuring that those on his team get what they need to succeed.
Perhaps it’s a bit idealistic of me to think that altruistic leaders are the rule rather than the exception, yet I’d be willing to bet all of us can come up with examples of those who’ve inspired us through their servant leadership approach and who’ve made great impacts on their organizations and colleagues.
Not only can we as learning professionals engage in our own altruistic behaviors, we can also help current and aspiring leaders move organizations and communities forward through a focus on acting for the good of others. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “It’s a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead – and find no one there.”