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Altruism, Leadership and the Learning Community

Matt’s team of teachers was tired by the time it came to plan the April vacation camp program. Matt knew it would be hard to find volunteers—everyone needed the vacation, themselves. Nonetheless, he put “Staffing for Vacation Camp” on the agenda for their weekly meeting. When this item came up on the agenda, Matt said: “So, is there anyone who wants to work this vacation?”

Matt’s question was greeted by a 10-second eternity of silence. Then Melissa spoke up: “I’ll do Monday.”

Then Mike said: “I’ll do Tuesday,” and in the next minute all the slots were filled.

With a smile on his face and gratitude in his voice Matt said: “What a different kind of union we have created. Thank you.”

When is self-sacrifice self-fulfillment? When Self makes that decision.

A leader gets that kind of decision when he or she has created a team, a community, a band of brothers and sisters. Serving others is the only way to serve self—contrary to common American individualistic culture. Serving self at the expense of others leaves the most critical piece of self in limbo (or worse). When everybody is “looking out for number one,” everyone experiences the deficit.

However, our language distracts us from the truth. We talk as if we are “torn between self and other” as between “bad and good.” Being “altruistic” is “morally responsible,” but not necessarily in our own self-interest. Whether to do good to others or to do for yourself is understood as a moral dilemma. This is evidence of a cultural flaw rather than “the way people are.”

The choice is not a dilemma—there is only one self-serving choice. Doing things for others (even to the point of self-sacrifice) inherently fulfills self. In our heads we have two brains. A left-brain that says: “I am myself, distinct, unique, independent,” and a right brain that says: “I am my relationships.” Fulfillment, happiness, success (etc.) is about integrating these two brains, and results in the discovery that, indeed, I am my relationships.

The confusion in our language stems from the duality in our religious traditions. Competition between our good selves and our bad selves is a dysfunctional cultural construction, not the way humans are naturally designed. This is why war heroes consistently report that their act of self-sacrifice was nothing special—it was just them being themselves. The Rotarian slogan “service over self?” has it slightly wrong. Service is self.

Given half a chance, children show that altruism is the natural tendency. Want to get a 3-year-old eating out of the palm of your hand? Show him how he can help you. Want to see a happy group of energetic third graders? Ask them to set up the chairs for you in the multi-purpose room. Want those “self-centered” middle-schoolers to behave responsibly? Give them the job of taking care of or teaching or just being with younger children. “Being yourself” is necessary, but insufficient. Self has to make a difference.

We create our own hell when we act as if children are selfish or act as if our neighbors are not a part of our community. We create a heaven when decide to act as if making a difference to others is what makes everybody somebody.

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9 Responses to “Altruism, Leadership and the Learning Community”

  1. Peter Ackerly June 2, 2011 at 3:28 am #

    I definitely agree that a desire to make a positive impact is the default setting for humans. The “Matt” case study needs a bit more drilling down. I am willing to bet that there is something about the environment that Matt has created as a manager that is the key difference, here. Treat me like a professional, and you can send me over the top time and time again. Treat me like a widget, and I will try to maximize the personal return on what I give by minimizing what I give.

  2. Marjie Knudsen June 2, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    This is excellent! When a child feels they have a ‘purpose’ they are truly engaged. When they feel they are needed and are able to help, they sure seem to feel empowered and happy!

  3. Mary Anderson June 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    Now you’ve done it. You are giving away all my secrets. 🙂 All humans have the need to feel important and a part of something bigger than themselves. Children especially feel this need deeply. No greater joy is there when they are put to a useful task than ignored or feared. We must allow people of all ages to show us their best selves and to do that we must let them help and serve others.

  4. Dawn Morris June 2, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Thank you for bringing this up! Attitudes are certainly contagious, so why not take every opportunity to spread positive vibes, caring attitudes, and enthusiasm?

    You probably won’t be surprised that I’m going to say that in addition to positive daily interactions and encouragement, children can learn so much about empathy and understanding by reading a wide variety of high quality children’s books. Just think about the diverse characters, feelings, viewpoints, situations, and settings that children are exposed to by the simple act of reading! They can travel the world without leaving their home towns, and experience real life scenarios that they may or may not ever actually be exposed to.

    Parents and teachers are often busy and carry a lot of stress, so thank you so much for pointing out that we have to try to see the glass half full even when all we can really see is the air. Kids pick up on every word, action, and gesture. Of course, we’re all only human too. Children need to understand that even adults make mistakes.

  5. Peter June 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

    … and we can’t expect our teachers to take this attitude with our children if we are not prepared take the same attitude with them.

  6. Peter June 2, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    … Dawn and I sent simultaneously, so now I’m out of context. I think it’s interesting that the case study has to do with a manager’s interface with his team, but the comments focus on teachers vis-a-vis kids. I think the reason why our schools are failing to produce enough professionals is — while we do have some professional teachers — there is no teaching profession, in the sense that there are not the guild-like institutions — such as we have in law or medicine or engineering — that cultivate and pass along the teaching craft. Instead, teachers can only pray that they get a good manager like Matt (in the story). Isolated instances of treating kids or teachers properly only masks the larger problem. I look at shows like Gray’s Anatomy, and I think, how is it that we take it for granted that that is how the medical profession perfects itself? and then, how is it that we take it for granted that the same multi-layered, international guild does not exist for teachers? And no, I’m not talking about unions. Unions are driven by altruism and rely on people’s good intentions. I’m talking about REALLY BELIEVING in our product — that its value-add is something worth banding together to cultivate and market … the same way the AMA markets ITS product or the ABA markets ITS product — small practices, local guilds, an international and on-going conversation about what works and what doesn’t. Then pride in profession becomes the default setting, and so does selflessness.

  7. Rick June 5, 2011 at 5:51 am #

    Hold fast to that vision, Peter. Maybe it will take hold somewhere and grow.
    It is a lot more rewarding to work hard for something you believe in than to “not have to work so hard.”

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