Leadership That Matters, Part 4

If we are interested in leading, we need to understand people.  We may not necessarily have to like people, but we need to understand them (a little humor there). And leading others implies there is more than one of us, so we need to understand a little sociology.

Altruism is an important aspect of social organization.  I was listening to an interview with E.O. Wilson, author of “The Social Conquest of Earth” on NPR's Science Friday.  Professor Wilson is an authority on sociobiology, and in particular his recent work on the comparisons of humans and insects in regard to socialization, and how socialization has allowed both to endure on the planet over the millennia.

Professor Wilson's book, from what I learned in the interview, discusses the scientific aspect of how altruism helps groups survive and prosper.  Yesterday's post, Leadership That Matters, Part 3, posed one  benefit of altruistic practice from a view of increasing efficiency.  We avoided the ethical and moral reasons for the success of altruistic groups, and looked at it from a completely pragmatic point of view.  Likewise, in this interview with Science Friday’s Ira Flatow , Professor Wilson clarified the Group Selection theory as such: "Within groups, selfish people tend to beat altruists.  But between groups, groups of altruists beat groups of selfish people."

There are many arguments and agreements to be made on this theory and the entire concept can’t begin to be justified or debated here.  Professor Wilson stated that this isn't his theory alone, but the points he made which I’d like to talk about are these:

1.       We are intensely interested in what other people are doing and thinking. 

2.       Humans as a whole are better at reading the intentions of other humans in order to get cooperation, to develop dominance, to bond, and so on, more so than other animals.

These two factors imply that we have an inherent curiosity, particularly about others, and usually eager to learn more about others.  This curiosity also aids us in understanding and empathizing with others, realizing what actions or inactions we must take to get people to do things for us, and helps us bond with others to create social organisms. The result is that our natural curiosity and desire to interact with others creates a force multiplier.  What is good for the team is good for us as individuals.  Alone, we may survive, but as a unit, we survive and lessen the effort on us all through cooperation.

One of the observations, however, was that while group selection pressure (the desire to conform and be part of a group) makes us what we are, it can also be dangerous because although it makes us altruistic within a specified group, it also makes groups very easily turn against other groups.  It is the basis for that "us against them" mentality.  As a leader, we need to not only understand that mentality, but use it to our advantage sparingly, because the repercussions can be disastrous. Just as competition can make us stronger and competition between units or groups can result in a certain amount of unit pride and cohesion, that same emotion can divide the larger unit and set groups apart from the rest.  This is a particularly negative aspect of special teams development.

It is not easy to be an altruist. There is always pressure not to be. We have been raised from birth to excel, to be the best.  There is nothing we can do to change that inner conflict. We can learn to work with it and understand it.  By studying how humans have dealt with these conflicts through history, in reading the humanities, in digesting information about strategic living and group dynamics, we can better understand when and where to appropriately use the competitive spirit, and when and where to promote altruistic behavior.

For every decision, no matter how inconsequential it seems, we have to choose between what is best for us or what is best for all.  We have to play these decisions out contextually and we need to consider short term and long term consequences.  Ultimately, it comes to context, which is something we will have to discuss further in the next post.

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