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The Power of Altruism: How Good People Attract Success

Coach Tony
Nov 4, 2016 · 4 min read

My coaching group is gearing up for a module on the power of altruism (details for the group at the bottom of this post).

Altruism is doing good things for other people without expecting to get something back directly.

Of course, we all get a little something back — doing good for other people feels good. (It’s also linked to a bunch of positive mental health outcomes.)

But even though altruism feels good and we think of ourselves as good people, we are often too afraid, too busy, to unaware to execute.

So, thinking of altruism in the broadest sense to include gratitude, philanthropy, volunteering, forgiveness, and the entire universe of pro-social behaviors — is it worth building and mastering habits and skills in this area?

Hell Yes.

I’m going to focus on the success aspects of altruism.

A great framing of this comes from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. Collins lays out two types of leaders.

One is a fox, constantly executing tricky plays that lead to immediate results. The other is a hedgehog, constantly picking their head up to see the big picture.

Hedgehogs always won over the long run. In the short run, foxes would sometimes win, but then over the long run they’d crash and burn.

This is the heart of the fear that prevents people from being altruistic leaders. You see some jerk succeeding and you get jealous.

I’m no saint here.

So, that’s one half of the challenge.

So what does a “hedgehog” leader do that’s so altruistic?

There are a ton of situations that have short term benefits but no, or unknown, long term benefits.

What do you do when a top performer says they are leaving the company? A lot of aggressive leaders try to manipulate them into staying, often with a short term bonus.

However, the long term, generous play, is to support someone on your staff in the next phase of their career. You’re going to take a hit (maybe) on your team (unless someone else is ready to step up). And it’s unclear why helping your staff get new jobs would ever help you.

But it does.

If you look around your industry you’ll find a small set of leaders who are surrounded by top performers who have worked with them over and over.

I think of a company like Slack, which has two people at the top who started working together in 2004 at Flickr. How many times has the more famous one (the CEO) had a chance to take advantage of the less famous one?

Altruism often requires emotional intelligence, both to understand your own mind and to have empathy for the people around you.

But there’s been some debate about the value of emotional intelligence. When researchers pitted emotional intelligence against cognitive intelligence as a factor in sales performance, researchers found that cognitive ability was by far the dominant factor.

But that’s sales. Let me give you an arena where the definition of a top performer is changing rapidly: basketball coaches.

There’s a now-retired college basketball coach, Bobby Knight, that many readers may be familiar with.

He’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

And if you know him you probably know him for yelling at players, yelling at referees, choking one of his players, or throwing chairs (:22 mark):

To me, Bobby Knight represents the old pinnacle of leadership. He ran a high performing organization that built disciplined habits because they had to or they’d get yelled at.

But, in basketball, there’s clearly another level of basketball coach emerging and that level is best personified by Gregg Popovich, 5-time NBA Champion with the San Antonio Spurs.

There are a lot of examples, but let me pull one:

Gregg Popovich would go to a Zagat-approved restaurant on the road with his staff, and sometimes, toward the end of the meal, he would ask the waiter for a small carrot cake to go.

He would then leave the package outside Tim Duncan’s [his star player’s] hotel door, and Popovich’s original thinking was simple. He knew Duncan loved carrot cake.

There was no quid pro quo. It was just a nice thing to do.

Not necessarily in exchange, his star player, Tim Duncan, set an extremely high work ethic and encouraged Popovich to give him hard, unfiltered feedback. If the best player on the team respects the coach, then everyone on the team has to respect the coach.

So, the thing about Popovich is that he’s not some kind-hearted pushover. He’s capable of yelling and giving hard feedback.

But he balanced that with emotional intelligence and a legitimate care for his players.

So that’s my interest: kindness, positivity and generosity is a key differentiator of performers in the top 1%.

And it’s not easy. There are aspects of emotional control. There are times when you have to do hard things while keeping kindness in your heart.

In short — it’s the kind of hard goal that I like. We’re going to cover this in depth over the next four weeks as part of my VIP group, the science, the habits, the leadership skills and the life skills. I’m excited just to go through this myself and do exercises that are about doing good for other people.

We start on Sunday. Join now and try out the first week free if you use my code VIPTONY.

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