Re-Imagining the Role of Generosity in Leadership

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February 21, 2020

Re-Imagining the Role of Generosity in Leadership

By Chris Proulx

Global Director, Member Engagement & Learning

“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others’?” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Generosity, and its role in leadership, is often an unexplored frame in how we manage and lead. Even more specifically, how can leadership teams make strategic decisions while using generosity as a frame? I spent some time before the new year thinking about leadership models and my own intentions to bring more authenticity to my work. I am aspiring to bring more focused intention to how I use my attention and how I make decisions, be more generous with my time and expertise, and stay open to being wrong by seeking the truth, however inconvenient.  This blog post expands on a discussion thread I started on LinkedIn around the theme of generosity because I think it is misunderstood. It generated a wide range of comments, several of which I will address here.

First, what do I mean by generosity in this context? Several comments to my thread interpreted the definition with a narrower framing of the leader as a generous individual, giving of one’s time, energy and expertise to others on their teams and or in their organization. This is an important component of generosity in leadership. However, I am interested in taking it a step further—how can generosity affect our strategic decision making and how can it shape an entire organization’s interactions with its ecosystem—its customers, suppliers, partners, and even its competitors. Generosity is not only about being a responsible leader or an ethical organization, i.e., generosity should not be equated with corporate social responsibility. And, by the way, not for profits, or social enterprises may not necessarily be led by leaders using generosity as a frame.

Generosity in leadership is the practice of using your organization as a means of giving freely to the world around you—without expectation of getting anything in return. It is grounded in a mindset of abundance about our assets and our opportunities. From this mindset of abundance, an organization also practices generosity by recognizing that its success, indeed its existence, is dependent on everyone around them and that it cannot truly act independently without consideration for its employees, suppliers, customers, regulators etc.

Now, two disclaimers. First, I am not suggesting that leaders should be financially irresponsible—an individual or an organization must sustain itself—otherwise, generosity is undermined by the failure to thrive. Second, I am also learning about my practice of generous leadership through this process. Therefore, I don’t claim that I, or the organizations that I have led, have gotten this right in every or even most instances. It is with humility that I am exploring these topics in more depth. 

Here are a few areas where we can explore the nuances of generosity.

1. Content marketing and thought leadership have become commonplace and a standard part of a marketing strategy. Looking more closely, is the starting point generosity, i.e. sharing our personal or organizational expertise with its community, or is it self-serving, i.e., content marketing as a lead generator? And if by sharing content, we are generating leads or growing followers in our network does make the process less generous?  A few commenters to my LinkedIn post shared their struggles with this balance with questions such as "Am I writing/sharing content with the goal of fostering meaningful dialogue, learning, connection, and community?”  "Am I writing/sharing content that offers my authentic perspectives and insights?” The critical issue is what is our intention? And are we are expecting a specific response? We can ask ourselves by sharing this content am I being authentic, and will the reader be better off for having engaged with that content? Will they be able to take action on that piece of content without purchasing the product or service that we offer? One comment summed it up best with, "Generosity is the only way to build [a] network in my mind.” Why? Because most people can see through inauthentic attempts to share.

2. There is a massive growth in ‘for good’ initiatives across multiple sectors. This should be applauded and welcomed. It reflects that customers want to do business with organizations who are giving back to the communities. However, I would argue that to truly resonate in a market, an organization need to start with being radically open and view the sharing of their product or service with non-profits, or other social sector users as part of an intentionally generous approach, without the expectation of business growth. I have noticed, however, an increase in companies viewing the “for good” space as a new channel. There is nothing wrong with charging for services or having differentiated prices for non-profits. The slippery slope comes when organizations design their ‘for good’ initiatives to specifically open up new channels while branding them more broadly as being part of their ethic of generosity. And, it probably doesn’t work anyway as customers are becoming increasingly savvy to these types of inconsistencies. Instead, leaders could focus on how not to ‘give back’ to make up for excessive profit but to ‘give’ as part of their business model. Open up your API. Provide a pay-what-you-can option. Offer a Creative Commons version of our content. And, so on.

3. Generosity and a mindset of abundance seem to be closely linked. As leaders, we can be regularly cultivating a mindset of abundance in our teams; reflecting on the talent, skills, products, capital, opportunities etc. that we have. Doing so can overcome the tendency to focus on constraints, budgets, competition etc. 

I always recall one of my early mentors reminding me that “you need to spend money to make money.” John was a very disciplined manager in terms of managing his costs, our dining hall at Cornell University always had one of the lowest cost structures. Yet, he never let that discipline get in the way of investing in new menu items, new equipment, or other upgrades that would enhance the customer’s experience to grow our business—in a university dining hall! John understood the power of thinking abundantly on customer expectations. And, despite his gruff manner, he generously invested in his employees: teaching while on the job and giving and sharing with employees who hit rough patches outside of work. 

I can track my career, and when I have let go of fear and invested in customers or invested in employees—generally, success has followed. And conversely, when I have allowed constraints to influence my decision making about those investments, it has usually started a downward trend that I would need to spend more money later to reverse.

The lesson for me is that great leaders can create success by tapping into the deep well of others’ passion by opening themselves up through their own sharing.  

Organizational psychologist and researcher, Adam Grant, sums up this topic well on his LinkedIn feed with: 

"We need more leaders who are givers, not takers. Takers demand attention. Givers pay attention. Takers brag about success. Givers take responsibility for failure. Takers aim to be better than others. Givers strive to do better for others.”

So, think abundantly, take risks and try sharing a little more today than you did yesterday.


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