What Covid-19 tells us about service

Joel Bailey

Behind this bland title, there is a radical and compelling essay on the nature and intrinsic value of service. It helps to makes sense of some of what we are seeing in the responses – and in responses to those responses – to the present crisis, but its power goes much further and deeper than that.

It restores a link to a deeper sense of the meaning of service than is commonly implied by phrases such as service industry and customer service agent:

Service is noble. Those who serve, in whatever function, are working to progress others. This nobility of service is what we’re seeing globally right now. This is the form of selfless service that is closer to what our evolved selves instinctively need than the usual, narrow view of service.

Suddenly that meaning is laid bare as it becomes apparent just how fundamental the idea of service is to much of what we really value – and yet how misaligned that value is to the way we reward, recognise and celebrate the activity of those who serve. That insight goes far beyond the service of personal care which is now much celebrated as an expression of the social response to an epidemic: it is also about how, between individuals and within and between organisations, service is an enormous positive force which we fail to recognise because we systematically overlook the good which comes from it, for those who serve as well those who are served.

This essay is not how you will have been accustomed to thinking about service. That is the measure of its importance – and of the service it provides to those who read it.

When part of your job is *not* caring

Terence Eden

Strategic Reading – and indeed strategy – tends to the lofty, the grand scale and the dispassionate. So at first sight, this personal and emotional reflection by Terence Eden might seem out of place here. But it is precisely because of the lofty perspective that his point is so important. Thinking about and, even more so, making decisions about issues which affect thousands or millions of people can never be about each of them as individuals. And few real world complex problems have a reassuring Pareto-optimal solution where we can sleep easy knowing that we have made things better for some and worse for none.

Abstracting from the individual can be a very necessary thing to do. But that’s not at all the same as forgetting that there are individuals, real people with real lives which can be made better or worse by distant decisions. To lose sight of that is to become less human. The first step to treating people badly is to strip them of their individuality. More insidiously, stripping people of their individuality is a step towards the risk of treating them badly. And yet as Terence says,

I simply cannot think about them as individuals. No one’s brain has room to contemplate the pain and joy and heartbreak and elation of so many people. It is unfair of me to care about any one person more than another.

The dilemma is inescapable. Being aware of it is the very least we should expect of those whose work forces that issue upon them.