Stephen Sutton, a young leader who won a nation’s love and respect

May 16, 2014

Stephen Sutton who died aged 19 this week won a nation’s love and respect for his courage and fund-raising from his hospital bed

Stephen will be remembered for his story of courage after diverting his energies away from a clichéd ‘battle against cancer’ to a transcendent initiative to help others with cancer. It was an effort to avoid another cliché of the cancer sufferer. One of Stephen’s powerful messages was that he wasn’t suffering from Cancer, he was living through it.

His thumbs-up image from his hospital bed helped his campaign which went far beyond his original fund-raising target.

And in this way he discovered what lies beyond acceptance of his approaching death. His discovery lies beyond what most of us never find, the nature of altruism and service leadership.


Exerting His Influence

March 9, 2014

Susan Moger

by Susan Moger

He may never have heard of management writer Stephen R. Covey and his theory of working within your ‘Circle of Influence’. However, that is exactly how 8 year old Caydon Taiplalus, from Michigan, USA acted, when he saw a classmate refused a hot school meal

His friend did not have the money to pay for the food. When Caydon got home, he began to collect used cans and bottles and small change from his relatives. His fundraising raised $64 and this was enough to pay off the deficit on his classmates’ lunch accounts so that they could have a hot school meal.

The Circle of Influence

Stephen R. Covey urges individuals to develop a proactive attitude by working in their ‘Circle of Influence’ He suggests that we can all be more effective if we recognise that we operate in a Circle of Influence and a Circle of Concern.

The Circle of Concern

Our Circle of Concern includes things that we cannot directly control (the climate, our organisational structure, our relatives, past disagreements). This contrasts with Circle of Influence which includes things we can directly do something about, including our behaviour and our responses to situations. By being active and positive we can increase our Circle of Influence, by being passive and negative we can decrease it. Positive behaviour can also draw other people to us, even if we didn’t originally intend to do this.

Caydon works in his circle of influence

Now totally committed to his idea with help from family and friends, Caydon has developed a website and recently had collected $7,000, to help other children in Michigan and beyond whose parents are struggling to find the money to pay for a hot school meal.
‘It isn’t right that kids go hungry at school and if I can do something about it I will’, he says.

If we all took our cue from Caydon and ‘did what we could’, then perhaps maybe things that ‘aren’t right’ wouldn’t stay that way.

[Susan is Senior Fellow in Leadership at Manchester Business School. Her work involves directing executive programmes. Susan also teaches leadership on MBSW MBA programmes.]


Service leadership: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

October 24, 2013

Theories of ethical leadership need to account for acts of self-interest. Evolutionary psychology has an equation explaining altruism in Darwinian terms

The theory has relevance in the UK, as the Government attempts to encourage more widespread acts of service leadership in tough economic times. It presents a dilemma to economists who have trouble fitting altruism into approaches which rely on equations to test hypotheses grounded in assumptions of rational human behaviours in decision-making.

If altruism has its existence outside the dominant rational model, less traditional ‘maps’ of leadership will gain in credibility. A pithy question posed by a BBC correspondent recently reaches the heart of the debate: Is altruism self-interest in disguise?

The article outlined the altruism equation conceived by George Price, an American evolutionary biologist whose work was taken up when he relocated to University College London in the late 1960s. I summarize the BBC piece below:

George Price’s equation addressed a problem that has vexed scientists since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species more than a century earlier. If we are selfish creatures, engaged in a battle for survival, why do we display altruism? Why do we show kindness to others even at a cost to ourselves?

Price’s equation explained how altruism could thrive, even amongst groups of selfish people. It built on the work of a number of other scientists, arguably beginning with JBS Haldane, a British biologist who developed a theory in the early 1950s. When asked if he would sacrifice his own life to save that of another, he said that he would, but only under certain conditions. “I would lay down my life for two brothers, or eight cousins.” Haldane’s reasoning was a simplistic explanation of a theory that has come to dominate evolutionary biology – that of “kin selection”. Since he would share 50% of each brother’s genetic makeup, and 12.5% of each cousin’s, his genes would survive even if he were to die.

In the 1960s another scientist, William Donald Hamilton, popularised the theory. He wrote a simple equation to explain that an organism would demonstrate self-sacrificing behaviour if it would enhance the reproductive chances of those it was closely related to.

Price arrived in London with no background in the field of evolutionary biology. Working in seclusion, he rewrote the Hamilton equation in a simpler but more wide-reaching way. It explained the relationship between different generations of a population, and could be used to show how the prevalence of particular traits would change over time.

Although it was a fairly simple statement, it had never been expressed in clear mathematical terms, and the staff at the University College London recognised his insight as wildly original.

A debate about the scientific roots of altruism still rages to this day, but kin selection remains a hugely influential theory, and Price’s contribution is held in high regard by many.

“It underpins a lot of modern evolutionary biology research,” says Andy Gardner, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, who uses the Price Equation in much of his work. Oren Harman, who wrote Price’s biography in 2010, says the view is shared by plenty of people in the field.

Samir Okasha, professor of the philosophy of science at Bristol University, thinks not. “The idea [that evolutionary theory shows that altruism is self-interest in disguise] is, to my mind, a questionable thing to say. Behaviour in some animal species is indeed genetically determined, but with humans he argues culture sets us apart from animals in that respect, and points to the huge variance in social norms in different countries, and over short periods of time.

Beyond kinship

The debate is rooted in the dominant rational model of human behaviour. Price’s equation suggests that decisions may be assessed for their rationality according to the calculus of genetic benefits resulting from them. It is a map predicting that humans act in the interests of the gene pool so that selfless acts may actually be rational and therefore not so selfless. It argues that self-interest is served by so-called altruistic actions.

Rational tyranny?

Research into socio-biology is becoming important. The ‘map’ of altruism is not easily dismissed. Neither are the maps drawing on moral philosophy and religious belief systems. A thought struck me. Social Darwinists believed in the ‘natural order of things’, including the instinct found among species to destroy the offspring carrying competitive genes. Perhaps there should be an equation on the rationality of what in humans is seen as tyrannical survival tactics?