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The Generous Leader

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Generous is defined as: (1) liberal in giving: openhanded (2) marked by abundance or ample proportions, or (3) characterized by a noble or kindly spirit: magnanimous. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/generous. Generosity is the quality of being generous.

My inner cynic says generosity in business and leadership would be considered waste because it means going beyond what is expected or required -- classified as over-processing. But my heart says different -- that generosity as a leadership quality is a value-add.

What does it mean to be a generous leader?  I think it means you kindly give of yourself and your resources without expecting anything in return -- not even better performance. Expecting something in return negates the generosity label. Generosity for a purpose is not the same being generous at heart.

Generosity comes from gratitude and positivism stored up over time and then given freely. It's more than giving money or donating possessions; it's about sharing time and talents with others. True generosity brings joy both to the receiver and the giver. It comes from the heart, not the ego (never for show), and that's what makes the difference.

Generosity is linked to empathy -- the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. You can learn empathy; you can also cultivate generosity. Both take intention, commitment and practice -- like any other change you would want to make.

But you know that.

You know what generosity is and what it feels like to both give and receive it. You have felt the impulse to be generous in service of people with whom you work. And you've acted on that impulse when you felt safe.

The question is: why don't leaders always feel safe acting on such a natural human impulse?

Here's my theory: It starts with a sense of fairness, and the conditioning that what you do for one, you have to do for all. Leaders are advised to avoid any action that would imply favoritism, so they tend to err on the side of "sameness," a close relative of fairness.

Sameness, though, causes other kinds of problems. The first is with the leader, who in denying their impulses to be generous, holds back. We are all more transparent than we think we are. And as a leader, everything you do, everything you don't do, everything you say and everything you don't say -- well, it all matters. Someone is always paying attention. Someone may not know explicitly that you are holding back, but they can feel it in your energy. That bit of hesitation is enough to raise concern.

When you hold back, you give yourself a reason to self-justify -- to excuse your own behavior, even though you'd prefer to behave differently. Over time, you adopt a new belief about the behavior. For example, I've had leaders tell me that they struggle to give out praise to employees even when deserved. They rarely say anything beyond a simple 'thank you' or a basic 'good job,' even in a private performance review conversation. One leader said he was afraid of blow back from employees who weren't included in the praise, so he quit making the effort. It didn't help that he had not received much praise from his own manager, and felt uncomfortable giving it in any situation.

When you withhold information, good or bad, people can feel it. And over time, trust is damaged. When trust is damaged, the relationship declines.

Trust is also damaged if the impact you have doesn't match your stated intent. Unless you stated your intent so people know, they'll make that part up based on how you make them feel. When something feels off, and we don't know why, we make up why.

What's interesting about feelings is that no one can make you feel anything. Your feelings are yours. Feelings come from inside of you, triggered by external circumstances. Feelings are complicated. They are based on experiences and personal values, and directly related to maintaining personal safety. Safety is one of our most basic human needs.

I worked with a leader who was told his acts of generosity made other leaders look bad. He was asked to stop. Not long after, he left the company for a new opportunity. His replacement fit in with the other leaders, but the team results declined and a lot of them left over the next year.

A generous leader is generous anyway.

He knows he is acting from the heart, not ego, so he doesn't fear repercussions or criticism. He is liberal with feedback and empathy. She has focused her time and attention on building solid relationships with her colleagues and direct reports. She shows vulnerability, humility and courage, with intent to lead by example.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be able to have your guard down like that?

To never worry whether someone will take advantage, or about the judgment of others -- or whether your job is safe. To never second guess yourself about whether you should have, always knowing that if you acted truly from the heart, then it's all good.

It sounds too ideal to be possible. Yet, we know what generosity looks and feels like. And if you've ever worked for a generous leader, you have experienced the difference.

In Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey asks readers to think about the eulogies at their funeral. If four people from different aspects of your life, including someone from work, were to give a eulogy, what would you want each one to say about you? The point of the exercise is to consider what kind of person you want to be, beyond the "doing" that tends to occupy our focus. I can't believe that "guarded" is what you'd put on that list.

Living -- and leading -- with your guard down takes practice.

And like learning anything new, it's uncomfortable and clunky at first. I'm still working on myself. I am surprised, sometimes, at the situations where I realize my guard is up -- and for no practical reason. It has to do with the ego and how its job is to keep you safe. My ego needs new information about who I think I am so it can know when I need protection and when I don't. Retraining my brain helps make the triggers less powerful; it also helps me be more aware and more at choice.

For me, step one was to pay attention to how I feel when my guard is up. Noticing -- having awareness -- helped me start making other choices. Step two is reflection, which I do by writing in a journal. Reflection helps me figure out the triggers -- the conditions under which my guard is triggered. I look for experiences and influences that may have contributed to a belief that I am not safe in those situations. I use affirmations, goals, and other tools to help shift my beliefs about myself and the world. I am by no means perfect at it, believe me. It's a process and a practice.

Anyone can be a generous leader.

Generosity is a quality — like honesty and patience.  As a quality of character, generosity is something you can develop.

I recommend doing that Covey exercise with the eulogies. If "generous" or something close to it makes your list, then decide to get better at generosity. Take the steps. Start noticing what gets in your way.  Notice when you attach judgment to others' generosity.  Our reactions to others tell us a lot about our own beliefs. Find the courage to choose a different approach.

Random acts of kindness can be a great way to start. Be generous to strangers. Put generosity into every day tasks, like driving and shopping. See how it feels to give to others without expecting anything in return. Revel in the freedom.  Then start taking your efforts to other parts of your life -- like at home with your family and at work with your colleagues. Above all, be patient with yourself, and don't expect to be perfect.  Character development is a life long process. 

I can only tell you that from my experience, the work is worth it.  After that, it's up to you.

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Monday, 01 June 2020