One of the elderly couples in the condominium complex in which we live recently faced the inevitable challenges of their age. When we moved here three years ago we could see that the gentleman was failing as his steps were halting; moving from a cane to walker, eventually to a wheelchair. Months passed. The walks became more infrequent. Once in a while the wife would step out to manicure her flowers, even her daily flag hanging was irregular. Then, the ambulance came, not once, but five times over a couple of months. Today, there is no activity and a for sale sign is in the front window. A graphic reminder of the circle of life.
What my wife and I bore witness to was the response of their friends and family. People, neighbors and those who traveled a distance would check in, stay overnight, or sit at the kitchen table and simply “be with” them. Near the end, people of all ages were there 24/7 providing care and compassion. You could see that whatever was needed, if humanly possible, it would be provided.
What spurs this type of compassion?
What motivates people to serve?
Why the altruism?
Without making today’s topic a study of human behavior we can at least make the point that selfless behavior – giving myself on behalf of others – can be called forth. Some of us respond more than others. Others of us are stirred differently. But if we allow whatever walls we have erected to be pierced by compassion, we will respond.
Altruism, in whatever form, is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. A virtue in many cultures and core traditions of most religions. More than just a feeling of loyalty or a call to duty (which is more about obligation), altruism focuses on the motivation to help others or to do good without reward. Transformational people will be in the process of learning how to intentionally be driven more by altruism.
Servant leadership is a philosophy and practice of leadership, coined and defined by Robert Greenleaf and supported by many leadership and management writers which define leadership more in terms of influence through serving. Servant leaders are often seen as humble stewards of their organization’s resources (human, financial and physical). They propose that servant leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve.
Are there qualities or competencies of a servant leader? Most servant leaders who have influenced me practiced all of these skills at some level, depending on their personality: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, growth and building community. These skills may take a lifetime to master. Acquiring them takes intentional effort.
A servant leader doesn’t just possess a skill set. They are more attuned to their character; what goes on behind the scenes. A servant leader knows that people will sense whether these competencies are genuine. People are well-versed at being lied to or manipulated. Therefore, they are looking for real, credible leaders who they believe and even feel, are people who can be trusted. That’s why Greenleaf wrote, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”
The people who responded to my neighbors were altruistic as they served. It wasn’t demeaning. They weren’t caught up in how they were perceived. They saw a need and responded. What I learned was another lesson in serving.
What if…we chose to respond selflessly to others – no matter what it’s called?