Altruism is the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Another definition of altruism is the behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.
We in emergency service like to believe that our work is done for the betterment of mankind. We talk about the “supreme sacrifice” and wear shirts that say, “We fight what you fear.” We tell people that our bond is based on “brotherhood’. These are all words that suggest a higher calling, something more about us and our comrades that perhaps places us above others in a moral hierarchy, short of sainthood but above the common man.
There are those among us that throw these statements out there pretty casually, considering actions we hear about routinely. Firefighters using their positions to steal from a fire company treasury. EMTs who are charged and convicted of preying on the vulnerable. Officers who permit subordinates to misuse their community trust. Too many heartbreaking stories in a group of people who pride themselves on being honorable, valorous, and having a great deal of integrity.
In our business, in emergency service, we have many who state emphatically that they are on this job for purely altruistic reasons. While volunteerism, perhaps, places a subject closer to that definition, I suggest that there are still benefits of volunteerism that we don’t think of, that don’t keep us in that category. Conversely, there are those who suggest that as a career emergency responder that we do not embrace altruistic behavior, that our efforts are mercenary. And while the reward is a paycheck, I suggest that this also does not limit us from the category either.
The definitions of altruism escape conventional thinking. We don’t know what is in the hearts of others. We don’t know what drives and motivates those who serve along with us. We know what we are told, and we may have reason to believe those reasons. I do, know people, however, who would wordlessly “step in front of a bullet” for a stranger; and I know people who talk a good talk, but are the first to run when any mention of even menial sacrifice surfaces. There are big differences, then, in what we say and what we do in regard to altruism.
What drives you? What about our job inspires you to continue, day to day, to perform dangerous, distasteful, uncomfortable tasks that challenge your own limits?
I wanted to begin a discussion on leadership that matters, focusing on the merits and drawbacks of transformational leadership as it relates to our job and to society as a whole. I can't put a number on the conversations that will come from this, but I can say that we could focus on the subject for years and only scratch the surface. The idea, however, is that there are too many out there who are like zombies, walking along from point to point, disengaged from others, and singly focused on their own comfort, their own needs, and on making their lives more comfortable on the backs of others. For these reasons, maybe if I can reach a few, I can create an avalanche. One can only hope. Feel free to comment at any time and share what you see.