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  • Writer's pictureGlenn Morgan

Selfless or Selfish?



6:00AM on a Saturday morning was often the time my father chose to remind me a crisis should never go to waste. “Get up,” he’d bark to the childhood version of me. “There’s an emergency in the city, the crew’s already on site. I’m going in. And you’re coming with me. Maybe you’ll learn something.”

During those early morning treks into the city, from the front seat of my father’s car, I’d watch as he’d wade into an emergency response; always shaking hands, asking questions, huddling in tight circles with stone-faced colleagues, and defining next steps.

Engaging, listening, building consensus, and taking action.

After a while, he’d return to the car and catch his breath. Leaning back, he’d try to teach me something, “You have to lead from the frontlines. You have to lead by example. While others are self-promoting or covering their @sses, you gotta first make sure everyone is safe. Then, once everyone’s safe, you focus on the task at hand and fix what’s broken. And after the crisis has passed you don’t ever let that crisis go to waste; you turn your attention to the source of the problem. And because you led from the frontlines, people will listen to your ideas. So, if you manage the crisis correctly, you are rewarded with the opportunity to fix the underlying problem. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I’d nod, wondering why I should care about a how to respond to a collapsed building in the Bronx.

Witnessing my childhood response, Dad would remind me, “It’s not rocket science, Glenn. It’s being a good person and making things right.”

And, as time has passed, and the crises of my life have come and gone, I’ve come to realize Dad was right.

I have never had to face the types of life and death situations my father faced. So, during times of crisis, I’ve been afforded the chance to consider what other opportunities a crisis might present.

For a crisis is more than an opportunity to fix immediate and systemic wrongs.

A crisis is a lens; sharing unfiltered information about the inner nature of those responding.

Like an X-ray, a crisis peers through our polished presentations to show us our true selves.

A crisis answers the question of whether the responder is selfless or selfish. As suggested by much peer-reviewed research, it’s often one or the other.[1]

Like a software backdoor, a crisis is a personality hack as it exposes the internal coding of each respondent.

Now, during the time of Covid-19 and the 2020 presidential election, the lens of crisis is upon us.

Through this lens, we witness the very best and the very worst of ourselves.

If I were musically inclined, I might think of Cyndi Lauper’s insightful lens. “I'll see your true colors shining through. I see your true colors...”[2]

Under the glare of crisis, the grace of selflessness or the repugnancy of selfishness is apparent for all to see.

We witness the difference between demonstrated leadership and declared leadership.

It is the acts of kindness and empathy demonstrated by those who never have to say, “I am your leader” that alert us to the presence of selfless leadership. And when the crisis passes, it is the men and women demonstrating leadership through the expenditure of their attention, time, and treasure we wish to follow. We can’t help but admire and we listen.

It is the acts of self-centered and self-absorbed self-preservation demonstrated by those who feel compelled to declare, “I am your leader” that alert us to the presence of false leadership. And when the crisis passes, it is those men and women sounding the tinny trumpet of declared leadership we must ignore. We hear their selfishness and it rings hollow.

Oh, the lens of crisis is sharply focused. And the contrast is stark.

So, let us learn from crisis. And let us act upon our hard-earned lesson.

Responses do not have to be self-serving, for we are not internally coded to be selfish.[3] A rich body of research demonstrates selflessness is a choice.[4]

Let us choose to act selflessly.

And let us move quickly, as the next crisis is now upon us.

As suggested by my father many years ago, “It’s not rocket science, Glenn. It’s being a good person and making things right.”

It’s choosing to lead by example.

It’s choosing to be kind.

It’s demonstrating leadership.



[1] Self-centeredness and selflessness: happiness correlates and mediating psychological processes, by Micheal Dambrun, 5/11/2017; PMC US National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5429736/ [2] “True Colors” sung and produced by Cyndi Lauper, written by Tome Kelly and Bill Steinberg, True Colors Album, Epic Records, 8/28/1986 [3] The Moral Animal, By Robert Wright, 1994 Patheon Books (The reader will note I have not listed specific pages in this footnote because the book is so breathtakingly powerful and wonderful I hope you will read it in its entirety! Thank you, Mr. Wright.) [4] Altruism and Selfishness, By Howard Rachlin, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2002, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~crsi/Internalmech.pdf

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