I would hope that we practice altruism for the sake of simply helping our fellow man, but there are entire studies of thought that suggest even our existence defies altruism. Others suffer because we survive. If we were truly and purely altruistic, we would just lie down and die. After all, every action and interaction we incur causes suffering for some other being. One could argue that pure altruism would require us to stop breathing, lest we kill the bacteria and other microorganisms carried in the air we breathe.
Let’s not be so fixed on those issues, however, and for our discussion, let’s take altruism for face value. Let’s just say that altruism will be defined for the purposes of our discussion as doing the right thing for another for no obvious reason other than it is the right thing to do. Being mindful of our actions in an effort to alleviate the suffering of others, or just to be considerate of their own situation, requires us to be more thoughtful. And given my observations of human behavior on a regular basis, ANY effort at being more thoughtful would be better than what we are getting right now.
But even "thoughfulness" doesn't wrap itself around what we need to practice. Really, when I see a homeless person, I am certainly moved by their plight, I feel empathy, and I try to be compassionate. But the realities of each situation don't always permit me to practice what I preach, I guess. If I did, I would likely be homeless myself, as I would share everything I have to eliminate the suffering of another. I found this quote to be interesting, although the website does not give the author’s name:
Altruism and compassion are not synonyms. Compassion is an emotion, sharing the suffering of another. Altruism involves acting to help another. Not all compassion leads to altruism, and not all altruistic acts are performed because of compassion.
There is no reason why we can not at least attempt to be more considerate of others, especially since it doesn't cost anything. We can refrain from being mean; We can make eye contact and acknowledge their existence; We can offer a prayer; and none of these things cost us any more than the personal feeling of embarrassment and uncomfortability. I use those descriptions of our emotions because we are faced with the reality of someone else's suffering and we don't have the facts as to why they are in that situation. It is the awkwardness of knowing we are being asked for help and for whatever reason, we choose not to answer.
We may rationalize that the individual squandered their opportunities, or we may realize that there are those with mental illness that provide profound challenges that resources don't readily exist for, or we may simply think they are a drunk or a drug addict. In any case, we don't know unless we ask, and even then, we may not get the truth anyway. But to use this as an analogy, how often have you been confronted with a situation where a fellow worker needed assistance and you failed to give it?
I would bet nearly all of you reading would say they would never do that. However, I suggest to you that as leaders, we often fail our followers for the most mundane of reasons. We are tired, or we have problems at home. Or we have a report due. Or we just don't feel up to training today. Likewise, when we have experience to share, do we seek those out who could use it, or do we wait for those people to come to us? I would suggest that there are probably plenty of people you work with who could use that kind of mentoring.
Leadership implies that we have something that others don't have. We may have funds, tools, supplies, knowledge, or other things that others need. Or we may have a position that creates power. In all of this, the person who is leading has some advantage, in that they can bring together others to create a change in our existence, however that leverage came about, and use it for good. Or they can use it to their own advantage. And in that, it requires a choice.
Creating a culture of transformational change requires interaction and trust. It certainly requires sacrifice, but even more so, it requires you as the leader to sacrifice, to demonstrate that example of altruistic leadership. Nobody ever said transformational leadership was easy. It might be the reason why there are so few truly transformational leaders.