Friday, August 11, 2020

Practicing Generosity

Generosity is a leadership virtue that rarely gets due consideration in today’s workplace. I don’t mean being free with money and resources; that is hardly the totality of what it means to be generous. What leaders need to make available to their subordinates as much as they possibly can is their time, their attention, their know-how, and their willingness to listen and strive to understand.

Generosity is essential to good leadership. Leaders need to share their time freely, discussing and enjoying the interplay of ideas. They need to be generous with encouragement, respect, admiration, and compliments. They need to give freely of their attention and empathy. It is as easy to be miserly with information, know-how, experience, or inside information as it is with cash or gold bars.

Many of today’s leaders would benefit greatly from some history lessons. The word “generosity” is formed from the same root as “generate,” meaning to create or bring to birth. Originally, in medieval English, “generous” meant a person of nobility. During Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times in Britain, the first duty of a king or lord was to display open-handed generosity to his followers. Generosity produces; meanness merely hoards. Leaders who are generous in sharing whatever they have can quickly produce a climate of fresh ideas, increase motivation, add to their people’s knowledge, and help the whole operation become more productive. Those who are stingy with their time and attention produce only frustration and disillusion.

Sadly, when people are in a rush, they often don’t have the time or energy to act generously towards others. All the pressure and manic busyness in today’s organizations is increasing whatever tendency people already have to hang on to knowledge or power as a means of personal survival. If you are afraid that you may lose your position in the next round of staff cuts, you are hardly likely to share whatever you think gives you value to the organization. You will cling to it as the sole means of increasing your own chances of survival. You’ll try to hide it and make yourself indispensable.

Like most virtues, generosity is reciprocal. If you act ungenerously towards others, they will repay you in the same coin. If you hoard your knowledge and try to hide away any advantage you possess from prying eyes, others will do the same. In time, the whole organization becomes more and more secretive, each person building their own personal silo where they squirrel away bits and pieces of information and expertise. When anyone leaves or is let go, that knowledge goes with them. The organization is steadily bleeding vital know-how, though few probably realize it until it’s too late.

Generosity is particularly important right at the top. Once someone enters the executive suite they become increasingly remote from the rest of the business. That group of top executives is an exclusive club, with its own rules, concerns, obsessions, and assumptions. Among them, influence matters more than authority, so much of the time and attention of top people is absorbed by political maneuvering and the defense of their existing areas of influence. Of course, little of this is of any benefit to the organization as a whole, but any group of ambitious people with their hands on the levers of power are going to behave in the same way.

This is where the virtue of generosity can pay rich dividends. Generous people feel less inclined to hoard. They are more willing to share what they have, whether it’s information, power, knowledge, encouragement, or expertise. Instead of looking inwards, like a miser, and secretly gloating over their riches, they look outwards into the organization. They become philanthropists of know-how, delighting in giving away their wealth to benefit others. Our dearest possession has little value until we give it away, since anything that is hoarded slowly loses its worth there in the dark. A person who teaches others what he or she knows adds to the value of that knowledge with every lesson. A leader who shares power increases it with every person they help. Someone who treats their influence as the means to assist others will see that influence grow and flourish like a field of ripening crops.

Generosity should be recognized for what it is: the mark of an effective leader. In today’s egalitarian and democratic culture, nobility of birth counts for little. But nobility of mind is still as vital as it ever was. The most important role for every leader—especially top executives—is to help others achieve the organization’s purpose, whether by mentoring, providing resources, or spending time sharing their experience and know-how with a new generation. To be mean with any of these is to harm the organization’s prospects in the cause of furthering your own ambitions. And that’s a “crime” that needs to be seen for what it is. . . and judged accordingly.

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