One At A Time

Leaders must recognize the priority of one. That’s what Pete Greig, founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement, said was the key to solving our social problems. Speaking at the 2023 Oklahoma Governor’s Prayer Breakfast, he related to us the need for leadership to remember that the numbers we often use and quote have names.

In the Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, Spock (a beloved character to millions of fans) dies by sacrificing himself to save the crew of the Enterprise. When pressed to explain the actions he took leading to his demise, Spock says, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.” 

Spock’s claim is a restatement of the moral theory known as utilitarianism which asserts that everyone should act to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. This is actually an offshoot of altruism. That word may sound like a good thing, but the ethics related to it might not be. I will not attempt to debate altruistic ethics or morality here. For now, it is enough to acknowledge it as the morality that holds self-sacrificial service as the standard of moral value.

In this morality, the needs of the many do most certainly outweigh the needs of the few. This leads to practical problems. If I believe that the highest moral good is to sacrifice my needs, wants, dreams, or “fill in the blank,” then I most certainly expect others to do the same. This leads to the reflexive excuse, “It’s for the good of the team,” when confronted with something that harms one person in favor of an incremental benefit to the group.

I am not advocating that we shouldn’t do what is good for others. I am suggesting that what is good for others is, in fact, good for us. The pursuit of our rational best interest within community necessarily results in appropriate benefit to others. There are actions that might appear selfish but are of objective and direct benefit to others, and there are actions that might appear selfless but are of direct and real benefit to us. 

Belief drives action. Action creates culture. If we believe that sacrificing oneself for the greater good, or any good, is the highest moral value, we will act according to that belief. As the leader, I may be willing to “sacrifice” myself on the altar of work, but you can be sure that I will expect others to do the same. I say “sacrifice” because we only sacrifice when we trade something of greater value for something of lesser or no value. In most situations, I am trading something I value less for something I value more. My “sacrifice” will result in opportunity for me at a disproportionately higher rate compared to others in the organization. Leaders simply have more to gain. 

However, for the average worker, the trade is not as good. Sometimes they are being asked to trade what is actually a higher value for a necessity. Trading something of value for something that is valued more is a good trade.  A worker may value the pay they receive more than the hours they work to receive it. They may value the benefits their company offers more than the incremental pay increase a company without benefits offers. They may value the community and culture more than they value the occasional overtime they are asked to work. 

Unfortunately, leaders often have the things people need (pay, benefits, opportunity) and demand an unfair trade (unreasonable hours, unethical behavior, unhealthy conditions) for the person to receive them. This is simply immoral. People may not value that pay enough to trade too much of their free time for it. They may not value that pay more than their physical, mental, or emotional health. They may not value that pay more than their own ethics and morals.

The solution is for everyone to act in their own rational self-interest. This results in people choosing to work where they believe the trade they are making is a good one. Leaders must acknowledge that it is in their own rational self-interest to make the trade they are asking for beneficial to everyone. It is in each of our own rational self-interest to do what we can help others achieve their goals, or values. 

This is what I mean when I say that a leader cannot live their best life unless the people around them are living theirs. Healthy society results in everyone doing better because of community, not everyone (or any one) sacrificing for community. We are not sacrificing when we are freely choosing to trade one value for another.

My highest calling as a leader is to enable the people I lead to act in their own rational self-interest. If I have a compelling vision (which is a value) and I offer equal respect (another value) and a reasonable share of the reward for success (yes pay, but so much more), then I can create a trade that is helpful to everyone. No one “sacrifices” because everyone is moving forward in ways that are valuable to them individually, yet they are doing it in ways that are beneficial to the community too.

As we consider the decisions we make every day, we must remember the priority of the one. Not that we can make everything perfect, but that we honor the freedom people should have to choose their value trades. Honesty, transparency, respect, and above all, care will give us the best opportunity to create a culture where the needs of the one are, in fact, the needs of the many. A culture that cares about one, is a culture that creates possibility for all, and it is the Bison Way.