How Can You Be An Altruistic Leader?

What lesson can we learn from meerkats, the game theory, and deciding who will go pick up the kids?

Do you know the little creature called meerkat?

There are little mongooses, smaller than a cat. They live in groups and are highly cooperative, sharing tasks, like taking care of the pups, to ensure the greater good of the community.

To spot incoming dangers, meerkats also adopt the role of sentinel, taking turns and exposing themselves on a lookout. By doing so, they allow their siblings to focus on other tasks. And when a predator is seen, the guardian alerts others with a specific sound, allowing them to hide in their burrow, but leaving the sentinel exposed to the deadly threat.

And one of the most amazing facts is that the guarding meerkat is not chosen by others, it altruistically decides to perform this risky task on its own¹.

Source: Lison Mage

This behaviour echoes the Volunteer’s Dilemma studied in game theory, a branch of applied mathematics to analyse decision-making processes. Under this paradigm, scientists examine the concept of negative coordination, where one has to make a sacrifice to solve a situation, and if no one does, everyone will suffer.

Indeed there are heroic examples of this dilemma, but we also encounter it in a more benign form. Like, when there is a power outage in the neighbourhood, who will call the electricity supplier? Or even more common, who will pick up the kids from school?

For a parent, it is a commitment to leave work on time, drive to school and get the kids back home safely. Obviously, it would be inefficient if both parents were to go to the school, but the worst outcome would be if none does.

Source: Lison Mage

The answer to this daily life version of the dilemma requires a combination of connection and communication.

Psychologists found that social proximity is a core element leading people to volunteer. The closest we are to someone, the more we are willing to be altruistic².

For instance, our manager emails the whole team on Friday night to inform us the customer has changed some of his requirements. Consequently, Monday’s presentation needs to be reviewed urgently. In this case, we are more likely to volunteer for this tedious chore if we feel socially close to our colleagues. And vice-versa.

Yet to avoid having more than one person doing the work, communication is crucial. So if we take on the task, we must update everyone.

Using connection and communication, we can ensure the best outcome for the group.

Interestingly when facing a volunteer’s dilemma, we can easily get caught in our thoughts, overthinking.

For instance, we are aware of consistent errors in the accounting reports of our company, but not our management. However, as they are pretty obvious, we are convinced others might have noticed them.

Then, we are unsure of what to do. If we open up, it could result in employees being fired. In addition, we would surely be labelled as a whistleblower, which could affect us later on. But if we don’t, and more significant errors are committed, this could seriously impact the company, resulting in more job losses.

And one reason motivating our overthinking is named by researchers the diffusion of responsibility. Basically, we ask ourselves why we should act when someone else could do it? And the more witnesses susceptible to help, the more the responsibility is spread. Like paint spilling on the ground, the larger the surface, the thinner the layer.

If we do not take action, we will not bear consequences in the short term, but we might pay a higher cost in the future. When we choose inaction, our mind will always wonder “what-if?”.

If a close colleague is made redundant due to economic restructuring, we will constantly imagine what would have happened if we had spoken up. These mental scenarios will create an emotional debt: life-long regrets. And worst of all, we can never reimburse it. We can never get closure as it is impossible to undo what we haven’t done.

So, when in doubt, act.

Become the leader you wish you had around you. Fight inertia and take action to ignite change. At first, we can feel silly or isolated, but we have the ability with our actions to light up the way and federate others to our vision.

One mistake with the Volunteer’s Dilemma is to present it as a situation where one protagonist loses in order for all others to win. It creates a separation between them and us.

But it is essential to correct this understanding and remind ourselves that if we lose, it allows everyone to win, us included. Like, when we notify the power outage, we spend time, but we benefit from the electricity issue being fixed.

And our actions create invisible ripples.

Researchers found that donating blood motivates those who see us do the same³. When we do good deeds, it starts a chain reaction, pushing others to emulate us.

So, when confronted with this particular dilemma, we can reframe the perceived loss as an investment. We bet on others and that together, we are stronger.

I hope you enjoy this article! And if you did, I suggest you read this one “How to evade the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

PS: If you are interested in working with me (either doing workshops in your company or for your personal development), join my next workshop => click here.


[1]- Clutton-Brock, T.H., and others, 1999, “Selfish sentinels in cooperative mammals”, Science

[2]- Krueger, J. I., and others, 2016, “Expectations and decisions in the volunteer’s dilemma: Effects of social distance and social projection”, Frontiers in Psychology: Cognition

[3]- Studte S, and others, 2019, “Blood donors and their changing engagement in other prosocial behaviors”, Transfusion

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Lison Mage

I help clever individuals and teams conquer overthinking and perform at their full potential. Together, we can go from a place of uncertainty and being paralyzed by doubt to gaining clarity on your current situation, where you want to go, and how to get you there!


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