The Altruism Revolution

The Altruism RevolutionEckhart Tolle, the author of A New Earth, tells a story of a businessman who spent two years of intense stress developing a new product that would make a lot of money for his company.  He succeeded in developing the highly successful product, but Tolle questions the definition of success:

“Success?” he asks. “In conventional terms, yes. In reality, you spent two years polluting your body as well as the earth with negative energy, made yourself and those around you miserable, and affected many others you never even met.”

Tolle continues, “The unconscious assumption behind all such action is that success is a future event, and that the end justifies the means. But the end and the means are one. And if the means did not contribute to human happiness, neither will the end.

Consider those last two sentences in light of the stereotypes applied to Generation X as skeptical of business and its emphasis on profits, and Millenials as idealistic and seeking meaningful work.  Consider that after many years, there are modest successes in international agreements on reducing pollutants. Consider the growing emphasis on sustainability.  In many subtle ways, people – and organizations – are recognizing and acting on Tolle’s assumption that how we define success is a ‘both-and’ proposition: both the end and the means must exhibit more than economic value to the world in order to be defined as a success.  And the generations that are now beginning to take positions of leadership buy into this formula.

Biologist Matthieu Ricard calls this phenomenon ‘the altruism revolution’.  He points out that it has become indefensible to say, “’I don’t care about future generations,’ ‘I don’t care about poverty in the midst of plenty’”.

Today’s leaders – both for-profit and nonprofit – will find themselves confronting the altruism revolution and facing dilemmas and tradeoffs that they didn’t study in graduate school, such as this sampling:

  • Where is the optimal intersection of being altruistic and assuring viability of a company?
  • Where are the most important places to direct emphasis on altruism with employees and customers?
  • How can an organization’s altruism feel genuine and not done solely to drive profits?
  • What does altruism mean for cooperating/collaborating with potential competitors?

The altruism revolution demands of leaders that they tap into a subset of their skills in different ways.  Here are some of the skills you may need to pull front and center:

Empathy:  As a leader facing the altruism revolution, you will find yourself succeeding only when you can connect on a deeper level with employees, colleagues, customers/clients, business partners, and even competitors.  What do they need to feel their own success, their own sense of fulfillment, their own ownership of both ‘the means and the end’?  Leaders need to translate that empathetic understanding into ways to drive the organization toward its most impactful success.

Integrity:  While this is not to suggest a lack of integrity on the part of any leaders, it is vital that leaders in the altruism revolution walk the talk of integrity.  Their professed beliefs must be borne out in actions.  If you really want work/life balance for your employees, you can’t turn around and ask them to take on things that they believe interfere with it.  If your company says it embraces concern for the environment, you can’t suggest contradictory or inconsistent courses of action in your work unit.  Leaders will need to be attuned to possible mixed messages.

Collaboration:  In the new order, it is harder to go it alone.  Inroads into altruistic impact are difficult to make without combining forces.  Leaders will need to call on the behaviors of collaboration and downplay their competitive natures if they really wish to see the impact they intend.

Negotiating:  The need to collaborate also brings a need to negotiate well – and the model of a company-union contract negotiation is not the right model.  Leaders will need to exercise transparency and a clear focus on a common goal, and a willingness to each trade off some individual organizational benefits for that goal.  Internally, leaders will also need to negotiate the tradeoffs of altruism against the organization’s financial needs.  The ability to listen carefully, draw out all perspectives, position the tradeoffs, and lead people to conscious, intentional decisions is crucial.

Prioritizing:  Altruism is a big goal, and the world has a big need.  Different constituents will each want a different slice of the pie.  Leaders will need to be adept at exploring and getting agreement on the criteria that will be used in decision-making about what altruistic goals for the organization take priority.

Are you ready to lead in a world that demands both profits and altruism?  Have you honed the skills that will make you successful in this environment – that will attract and retain the next generation of employees, enhance the reputation of your organization as a proactive advocate of more than just its profits, build the internal resources and the external relationships that will sustain a viable ‘both-and’ environment?  You still have time, but the drive is on, and the leaders who can take this on are the ones who will be recognized in the coming years.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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