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Altruism: What’s in it for Me?

[Guest blogger Nina Peterson is the COO and a partner at Wisdom Works. In her last blog, she provided four ways to “make the turn” when plans don’t pan out.]

Back in the ’90s, corporations were falling all over themselves to show how caring and compassionate they were. The Body Shop donated time and money to environmental welfare projects. Harvard Business School students volunteered to repaint and clean up low-income housing projects. It was the beginning of the LOHAS trend, and community projects and environmental protection were emerging as boardroom issues. As a former Girl Scout and life-long volunteer, I was overjoyed to see businesses taking more responsibility. But a cynic might say: hey, this altruism thing is great, but what’s in it for me?

First of all, altruism really makes a difference: Let’s not lose sight of that. Over the last 20 years, those compassionate efforts of our best corporations have become commonplace, even expected. Society is certainly the better for it and so are the organizations that participate. But as I take off work to attend my YMCA board meeting or wrap up the day early to serve meals to the homeless—I’ll engage the question: am I a better leader for it?

I’m not talking about an impromptu donation or showing up for a bi-annual community service project. Those can be a nice taste, but altruism must run deeper: I mean personally devoting resources (time, money, expertise, and/or energy) in order to benefit others on a consistent basis. In the corporate world, we tend to fill our lives with work; it’s not easy to make time to share our abundance with others. When we do truly help people, sure, there’s a warm and fuzzy feeling—but there’s also an enriching of our potential as leaders.

Studies, such as one published by the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management in January 2010, have connected altruism with traits of successful leaders including “social astuteness” and “networking.” In my work at the Y (as chair of the strategic planning committee), I sit at the table with leaders from the school district, the mental health association, the senior center, and United Way. Among us are lawyers, real estate developers, and stay-at-home moms. I see their wide range of perspectives and I can’t help but value the whole system. This ability to work, network, and collaborate with people from all walks of life is as valuable to my client work as it is to my charities.

Ultimately, altruism’s greatest strength is that it can provide leaders a bigger perspective on the world and greater motivation. Dave and Wendy Ulrich, in their new book, The Why of Work, summed it up: “a leader’s critical mission is to instill meaning and purpose in his or her organization.” Finding group consensus is great, but guiding that consensus toward meaningful results is the true calling of a leader. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what we are doing or how we are doing it, but the real question is: why? At Wisdom Works, that’s one of the biggest issues our clients tackle.

In his interview with Human Capital League, Dave Ulrich said:

Different people have different things that are meaningful to them … Managers who are meaning makers are more able to make a difference in important customer, financial, and productivity results. Making meaning makes money. It is not a ‘nice to do’ or luxury, but a real process of management success.

The largest fire in state history forced thousands from their homes

Our YMCA joined fire rescue efforts as a Red Cross shelter

Our cynic might respond: “nice, but where does that meaning come from?” How about from within a leader’s own life? At the Y, we wrestle with resource allocation, creating alliances and setting priorities for whom to serve. For a diverse group to agree on such priorities, there really has to be a unified meaning and purpose. When our Y became a Red Cross shelter for local forest fire evacuees, the meaning of our contribution became magnified for all of us. And for me, personally, I was reminded that my talents are in play for a greater good. That satisfaction feels like a source of energy—I’ve found a big part of my “Why” at the Y. Where’s yours?

Photos courtesy of YMCA of Boulder Valley and scatteredView