Leading With Generosity
Good leaders help others shine and grow.
The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
- Nelson Henderson
I am holding in my hand a graceful, inspirational book entitled “Ramban’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It is Necessary to Give” by Julie Salamon. The book is based on the teachings of Ramban, a physician and philosopher who, more than a thousand years ago, developed Ramban’s Ladder, which outlines the various forms of giving from the lowest – handing out money begrudgingly, as one might to a panhandler – to the highest, helping someone become self-reliant. I have long been meditating on the whole issue of generosity as an important quality of leadership: observing leaders who had it, and those who lacked it.
When we think of generosity, our thoughts automatically drift to gifts of money or charity. In the context of leadership, there are other gifts that don’t have a monetary value, but whose value is beyond price. These include giving someone a chance; giving someone the benefit of the doubt; and giving others a reason to want to work for you. It entails giving others latitude, permission to make mistakes, and all the information that they need to do the job. It’s giving them the authority that goes with responsibility – it’s giving them due credit for their ideas. In a nutshell, all of this translates to generosity of spirit, a quality we admire in leaders.
Generosity, a word which once meant ‘of noble birth,’ used to be associated with members of the aristocracy who, by virtue of their privileges, were expected to show generosity towards those in lesser standing. A leader too, by virtue of her position, and the power and privileges that she holds relative to those she leads, has the same expectations and obligations. A prime obligation is to lead with a generous heart, and to be guided by a nobility of mind. A leader’s generosity has a positive spreading effect – conversely, its absence has a series of negative consequences that, if a leader paused to reflect on them, may stop her in her tracks.
I am a firm believer that people need more than just ‘a nice job close to home.’ Most people want to find meaning in their jobs – they want to feel that they are a part of something bigger and something better. They want to know that what they do matters. A leader with a generous spirit understands this need, and connects the dots for people – the dots that help them see how the work they perform, no matter how small it may be in the scheme of things, has a bearing on the ultimate vision of the company.
There is a well-known anecdote that is related by Tom Peters about a hospital in the US that treats cancer. During a series of staff interviews, an interviewer asked the housekeeper what her job entailed. She responded, “I help to cure cancer.” Somewhere in that hospital, a leader connected the dots for this individual, and made her feel that she was an integral part of the hospital’s mission. Do you do that for the people who do the work in your unit or organization?
There is a lot of talk these days about lack of engagement in the workforce. Imagine how engaged people are when their leader makes them feel that they are a fundamental part of the success of the organization; that everyone, from the receptionist or mail clerk to the Vice President of Product Development, constitutes a binding thread, tightly interwoven into the company fabric – each equally doing its part to give the fabric its strength.
A leader with a generous spirit delegates not just routine work, but understands about delegating worthwhile work that becomes a gift of development and growth for someone else. How we love those leaders! These are the leaders that make us want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work to give that person the very best that we have to offer. These are the leaders who get our discretionary effort, every day.
And what about gifts of information? In a survey on effective motivation published by 1000 Ventures, one of the top items that individuals want in the workplace is the ability to be ‘in’ on things. This was rated 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Managers ranked this item as 1! This is a large chasm in understanding. The quickest way to satisfy this need in constituents is to share information. We have all come across some leaders who are inclined to hoard crucial information as the currency of power. Leaders with a generous spirit give employees a chance to get under the hood and to be a part of the inner circle. Freely and generously sharing know-how, expertise, and ideas is not only beneficial for employees – it’s a smart way of doing business.
Albert Camus said: “Real generosity toward the future consists in giving all to what is present.” How often, as leaders, we are so focused on future achievements, on realizing the vision of the organization, that in the process, we neglect the people who are there. A leader of a successful software firm confessed to me once that she woke up one day realizing how much she had disconnected emotionally from the people who did the work in her organization, while focusing on the strategic imperatives of the company. Today, we have a tendency to be too self-absorbed. We become self-involved to the point where, without intending it, we exclude others; and we often only consciously notice that we have excluded them when they have become disengaged. Self-absorption inherently prevents generosity. Once in a while, it helps to stop and ask oneself: “Am I giving enough to the people around me?”
There is an African village where the greeting words for ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’ are: “I am here if you are here.” Imagine the gift we give others when we are fully present with them – when we truly see them. Perhaps this is what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said: “The only gift is the gift of thyself.” Bill Clinton recently ended a speech to a 6,000-member audience with an exhortation to “see more people.” This preceded his reference to all the people who do the clean-up work behind the scenes after the audience leaves. Do we give a thought to the people who are unnoticed in our organizations, those who quietly work in the background?
While generosity in its pure sense is altruistic, you do still get something back from it: surprise dividends in the form of a recycling of goodwill, a surplus of cooperation, and the sheer satisfaction of seeing another benefit from our giving of ourselves, our time, our attention, our knowledge, and the very best that we have to offer those who cross our paths at work or life. We will never know what opportunities we may have missed in life by showing up tight-fisted. It is hard to receive anything if we don’t open our hands to give.
As a leader, giving people the gift of not just our appreciation for good work, but our genuine admiration for their talents, is generosity of spirit at its pinnacle. This is the difference between saying to someone: “Great job” versus “This was pure genius;” or “I appreciated your help” versus “I couldn’t have done it without you.” When it comes to genuine praise, like the sun at high noon, give resplendently. When you see good work, say it, and say it from the heart, just as you thought it. Free up the thought, and let it breathe – let it fly out there in the form of generous words, and watch what you get back. Giving is ultimately sharing.
Here are some practical tips to enhance our generosity of spirit:
- Give people a sense of importance
In Adele Lynn’s book, In Search of Honor: Lessons from Workers in How to Build Trust, we learn that 55% of workers value “giving people a sense of importance” as the number one item for building trust in the workplace. Consider what small actions you could take intentionally today to make people feel that the work they do is important, and that they themselves, as people, are important to your team.
- Give feedback, not criticism
If giving frequent criticism is your style of management, consider some of these questions: Is your motivation genuine, or is it to gain points? Are you picking the right moment? Are you stopping to reflect how you might deliver the feedback while still honoring the other person?
- Give people visibility
Giving people visibility in your organization is a special gift we bestow to help others shine and grow. I encourage you to think how you might give people more access to senior executives, and more access to your boss. Consider as well that people like to know that their boss’s boss knows the great contributions they made to a project, or about their significant effort in writing a report that does not bear their name. Knowing that our leader is representing us well to upper management is a high-octane motivator, and engenders fierce loyalty.
- Give anonymously
Real generosity of spirit is doing something for someone without their knowledge. Think of one or two deserving people in your organization that you can help by planting a career-enhancing seed on their behalf – perhaps saying something positive about their work to someone in authority?
- Know when to forgive
Martin Luther King said that “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” Consider how harboring vindictive thoughts, even though so compelling at times, is nothing but violence to oneself. A characteristic of a generous person is a total lack of resentment – it’s in effect being too noble, too big for that. Who do you need to forgive? What do you need to let go?
- Give encouragement
Look around you and pick someone who needs encouragement, and resolve to give them that. Consider that some people have never received encouragement in their life – not from teachers, not from bosses, not even from parents.
- Give opportunity
One of the most valuable gifts we can give someone is giving them a chance. Is there someone right now to whom you could give a second chance to prove themselves? If so, what active steps can you take to create the right circumstances for them to succeed? What doors can you open for someone who is well deserving, but not well positioned to be noticed?
- Share your knowledge and experience
Resolve to become a philanthropist of know-how. What knowledge, expertise, or best practices can you share with others as a way to enrich them? For inspiration, read about other leaders who practice teaching in their organization for everyone’s benefit – for example, Jack Welch, whose calendar was filled with hundreds of hours spent teaching thousands of GE managers and executives at the company’s training center at Croton-on-Hudson; or the ex-CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, who devoted considerable amounts of time to teaching newly hired and senior managers his philosophy on how to lead in an industry where innovation goes stale very quickly.
- Give moral support
Public speaking is known to be among the greatest fears experienced by millions of people. The next time you attend a presentation given by an apprehensive team member, practice giving them moral support. The simplest of generous acts are abstaining from checking your Blackberry, giving the odd nod in agreement, and practicing looking with kind eyes. Finally, take some inspiration from Walt Whitman’s beautiful words: “The habit of giving enhances the desire to give.” Giving is like building a muscle. It requires practice and persistence – once it becomes habitual, you will emerge as a stronger leader.