Altruism and Leadership: Service and the Alleviation of Suffering

This quote crossed my desk today, from the intriguing little book, The Pocket Dalai Lama. I often turn to this great leader (scientist, philosopher, visionary) for plainspoken truths.


We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives in which we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others. Nor is it so remarkable that our greatest joy should come when we are motivated by concern for others. But that is not all. We find that not only do altruistic actions bring about happiness, but they also lessen our experience of suffering. Here I am not suggesting that the individual whose actions are motivated by the wish to bring others happiness necessarily meets with less misfortune than the one who does not. Sickness, old age, mishaps of one sort or another are the same for us all. But the sufferings which undermine our internal peace—anxiety, doubt, disappointment—these are definitely less.” (6-7)

cover image

As leaders, we can lose track of this humble sense of interdependence, and the mutual benefits of altruism. Our culture is hyperindividualist — not just celebrating individualism, but obsessively valuing individualism above more community-based ways of being. Think about it — how do we define success? How do we recognize influence? How do we measure value? In a way, we value the results of extreme selfishness, with star achievement coming before all things — even service. Mostly, we see the bias when we feel the need to take action to distinguish us from the crowd. And who are in the crowd? Followers. We want to be The Leader.

The Dalai Lamaʻs call to ease suffering is one that recognizes, in the Buddhist way, that suffering is constant in the world, and that suffering is eased by compassion and non-attachment to ego. We benefit from each other, happiness comes from concern for each other, and our inevitable suffering is eased by a greater sense of inner peace that comes from service.

Service leadership is an important branch in leadership theory and practice. It often grows out of communities of faith, at their best a haven for compassionate action for social change and human support.

The challenge we face is this: How do we manifest that humble compassion in our ordinary lives? How do we remember, in the face of extraordinary cultural pressure, that being extraordinary isnʻt necessarily the best way to be a good leader?

Itʻs a puzzle we need to solve, as creatively and practically as we possibly can, in order to build sustainable leadership at this time of great crisis.


  1. […] culture, many of us push the caregiver/the compassionate heart into the unconscious, because we over value the individualistic leader — in our case, the ruler, the warrior, and the sage. As with any quality, balance and discernment […]


  2. […] before he was discovered. That kind of leadership refuses to take real responsibility for choices, preferring to satisfy personal goals and reflect on the consequences until after the choice was […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: