20 Qualities of the Generous Leader

11/18/2014 05:58 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

From a speech given at The Mindful Leadership Summit, Washington D.C. November 14-16, 2014

I have been extraordinarily lucky in both my professional and personal lives to have met and worked closely with some remarkably generous leaders who have served as models of great inspiration for me. And, although I would never have thought so at the time, I have been equally fortunate to have learned almost as much from the very ungenerous. I'm sure we all have known such leaders -- immersed in the study of management; familiar with every new book and case study from The Harvard Business School; able to establish model strategies and processes. The "bottom lines" of their institutions might even be enviable. But as true leaders? I wouldn't follow them anywhere. The institutional cultures they create as well as their relationships with co-workers and colleagues are nearly devoid of generosity of spirit. So, in a very non-traditional way, they too can be superb teachers!

Five years ago, after a career devoted to nonprofit management, fundraising and philanthropy I began to immerse myself in the study of generosity -- what it is, what it isn't, how it manifests and how it changes lives. The result of those years is my book Inspiring Generosity (Wisdom Publications) that was published in February. While the research and writing of the book was a great learning experience, going around the country meeting and speaking with people who want to come together for conversations about generosity has certainly been at least as important to me.

I had three goals when I embarked upon the book. First, I believe in the power of inspiration and I believe that true generosity is powerfully inspiring. Second, I wanted to expand our understanding of generosity beyond the simple giving of money and material goods to something much more meaningful. What I am most interested in is what makes a generous life. And finally, I was interested in what generosity looks like on the ground in our day-to-day lives, not simply in the press's fascination with the activities of our philanthropic billionaires.

All three motives are equally alive for me today as I consider the nature of the generous leader. We all have many ways in which generosity shows up in our lives. I have found that people are often quite surprised and fascinated by exploring the ways in which generosity manifests that are above and beyond our usual understanding of the word. For example, I believe that expressing gratitude is an act of generosity. Likewise, expressing appreciation. Patience often requires generosity to ourselves and others. Deep listening is an act of generosity. And the list goes on.

The subject of generosity in business is often dismissed as impractical, pie in the sky, impossibly idealistic. I argue quite the opposite. Generosity is most certainly a virtue. But it also makes life better, makes people happier, enhances outcomes and inspires. It is not just for after hours. As Adam Grant has shown in his wonderful book Give and Take, generous people become successful and not, as we are accustomed to thinking, the other way around. He argues that success is not just about talent and hard work "... but about how we interact. It is in helping that givers succeed."

So now let's try out a few specific qualities of the generous leader. Actually more than a few. I'd like to propose 20, but there are at least another 20 for future consideration. These are not in any hierarchical order of importance.

1. The generous leader is open to all ideas of her colleagues, even those she does not particularly take to right off the bat. Of course there are bushels of bad ideas in each of our organizations. You would probably agree that some of our organizations even seem to specialize in bad ideas. But the generous leader opens herself to hearing and acknowledging before dismissing and diminishing. And the mere act of being open in turns helps foster institutional cultures of daring and boldness, unhampered by fears of put downs.

2. The generous leader gives the credit away because she understands the value of creating a sense of shared success and community. She sees utterly no advantage in grabbing the credit and embodies giving away the credit as a hallmark of her leadership.

3. The generous leader does not tolerate an organizational culture of blaming. In these highly insidious cultures it is so easy for blaming to become contagious and utterly decimate morale. The generous leader doesn't let it happen.

4. The flip side to not tolerating blame is fostering cultures of gratitude and appreciation. Studies show that gratitude is less likely to be expressed in the workplace than anywhere else. Grateful and appreciative leaders are always on the lookout for occasions to praise, to note the smallest accomplishment, and to encourage. As you might well imagine, quality and excellence are often the result.

5. Hand in hand with appreciation are kindness and care. Again, two "soft" qualities -- that is, until you see them in action in highly effective cultures. As it is nearly impossible to effectively introduce a culture of kindness at the bottom rungs of an unkind culture it is the generous leader who needs to model this form of generosity to employees and colleagues from the top.

6. Generous leaders celebrate small successes knowing that a generous culture of celebration renews mission and fosters community. It's also just a lot more fun to work with the celebrators.

7. While we might think that humility is an anomaly in successful business cultures, let's remember that Good to Great author Jim Collins calls it the #1 trait of a great leader. But it's not enough to just sound and look humble. This one has to come from deep inside and be what sets the compass. I contend that generosity of spirit is the driving engine of humility.

8. I believe that trusting one's colleagues is an act of generosity. But we can't summon up trust out of the blue. Organizational leadership needs to strongly signal that trust is the order of the day. Warren Buffet has said that trust is one of the most powerful forces in an organization; "Find trustworthy managers and give them enormous amounts of leeway". I should add that ungenerous leaders I have known have been almost invariably unable to trust, even when they are at the helm of organizations in which trust is wholly warranted. Ironically, their inability to trust made them perceived as untrustworthy.

9. Leaders are not generally known, as a group, for their patience. We tend to equate patience with a tolerance for slowness. Instead, I see patience as correlating highly with trust. The patient leader has carefully assessed a situation and entrusted colleagues to work diligently to a successful outcome. The generous gift in that moment of trust is the patience to let the work unfold as it needs to in trusted hands. Usually the combination of trust and patience are rewarded with high levels of motivation, energy and determination.

10. The generous leader understands and cares deeply about creating and fostering a work environment conducive to energy, inspiration, vitality, collegiality and excellence. You can recognize these environments the moment you step in the door. Aesthetics matter. Individual workspaces are comfortable and pleasing to the eye. There is often art. Something is green, alive and growing. There is a sense of coherence. The atmosphere is not fraught and frenzied, though the work itself might be intense and fast paced. There might even be a dog. I am not arguing that everyone needs to be in yoga clothes with a cot for power napping, but environment matters and generous leaders know that and care.

11. Similarly, these cultures do not promote exhaustion. Why has it become such a badge of honor in our work life to say how busy we are? How often do we greet a colleague and just very informally say "Hi, how are you?" and the answer is one word: "Busy." Really? Busy is how we are? We are all in fact busy but is that what leads the list? And far too often the answer is "exhausted". Too many answers of "exhausted" creates a very slippery slope. I believe that some very well meaning leaders who are devoted to their work can inadvertently create whole organizational cultures of exhaustion where there is an undeclared prize for staying late, coming in before anyone else, answering emails in the middle of the night, and working through weekends. Where do batteries get recharged? How can innovation take place here? The generous leader gets it.

12. The ability to hold sacrifice as a key value is integral to generous leadership. Here I'm not talking about martyrdom or victimhood. But a generous leader puts the welfare of her employees and constituents first. I highly recommend to you the wonderful book Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. He sums up his thesis as follows: Leaders "...are often willing to sacrifice their own comforts for ours, even when they disagree with us... Trust is a biological reaction to the belief that someone has our well being at heart. Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us... to put themselves at personal risk to open a path for others to follow."

13. Generous leaders do not hold grudges. It is the very opposite of generosity. Grudges hurt the team and the culture. They can decimate morale. Grudges emit destructive energy. Generous leaders choose to move on.

14. Related to but distinct from not holding a grudge is the ability to forgive. I'm not advocating amnesia, but the leader who can call a valued employee's honest mistake for what it is, understand it, work with it and move on has done herself and her organization a generous favor. Of course it isn't always either wise or possible but when it is, everybody wins.

15. Here is where I may lose you. I believe that we can help create generous organizational cultures, and I've seen leaders take the lead in this, by making them Gossip Free Zones. I know that here I risk sounding like a total Polyanna who has never set foot in a high-powered organization but I believe this one wholeheartedly. If nothing else, do you know how much time gossip about who is doing what to whom takes up in our days? I never really realized this until I became a consultant. Working for myself and largely divorced from talk around the water cooler, I can now see how many working hours can be gobbled up by negative energy. This is a tough one but there are rewards in just beginning and the best teacher is mindfulness practice.

16. While leadership does not bring with it excessive amounts of free time, I am always heartened to see that the generous leader has found time to mentor, and not just within her own organization but for others. Perhaps it is my age speaking here but giving to the next professional generation is one of the great joys of this stage of my career. All of us who have been successful owe it to our younger colleagues to share what we know. Mentoring in our professional lives is a gift to the younger person, the profession and to ourselves.

17. Generous cultures value honest, respectful feedback. This is not just good business advice. It is actually generous to learn how to respond honestly, openly, kindly and at the right time. Even when the news is not what they would want to hear it is generous to make it helpful. I have been amazed at the number of times over the years that employees that I have actually had to fire have come back to me, often many years later, to thank me for what they learned in that otherwise very uncomfortable conversation.

18. This one is from my own highly unscientific and totally personal sampling. I have found that when I hear the generous leader speak about her organization or company, she almost never uses the possessive adjective "my". She does not speak of "my" board, "my" vice president, "my" curator, or "my" successful outcome. She genuinely feels part of the whole, feels that despite her lofty position, none of it is "hers". This one, by the way, only works when it is genuine. It can't be forced.

19. I can't believe that I'm making this #19 as I really believe that this one is paramount. But I told you no hierarchical order. #19 is LISTEN. And not just listen, but stop and listen. I have felt for a long time that real listening, total attention, what Adam Grant calls "powerless communication" is a powerful force. I believe that the best, most generous leaders are great listeners. Why is it then that much of what we teach in leadership is how to talk, how to take hold of the microphone, make our point, be forceful, and dominate? I believe there is untapped power in real listening that is really nothing more than generous communication between individuals and groups.

20. The generous leader works hard to keep her batteries continually charged. She avoids burnout for her own sake and the sake of others. She gives herself the gift of inspiration. I don't care if it is CrossFit or poetry; yoga or opera, meditation or mountain climbing. It is a generous gift to herself that makes her better at what she does. Daily seeds of inspiration are a gift to any leader and everyone she leads.

I'm sure many of you know the famous quote from Antoine de St. Exupery that can keep us all inspired and generous leaders: "If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."