The Giving Leader: Is Generosity Naive or Necessary?

“No one has ever become poor by giving.”
Anne Frank

anne_2148996bThe famous diarist Anne Frank, whose short, enthusiastic life was cut short in a Nazi concentration camp, became a role model after her death. But now, school children read her diary as a way to grasp the human story behind the Holocaust. This quote crossed my desk today, and made me think about the productive leadership quality of generosity.

It’s such a lovely quote, written by a girl unaware of the paradoxes of generosity in a greedy world. And there is a ring of truth in it –the giving leader creates a space of abundance and empowerment, creating relationships that inspire loyalty and trust.

It’s a balancing act, because generosity has to be unconditional. It can’t be offered with the expectation of returned gifts. In a quid pro quo world, true generosity is rare, unfortunately. But generous leaders can be very effective, if they understand three basic survival tips.

1. In a cynical world, generosity can create distrust before trust — it has to be authentic and consistent in order to be believed. Giver leaders can be labeled “naive” or manipulative. Be aware — and give anyway.

2. Generosity doesn’t mean self-sacrifice. If a leader gives too much, s/he won’t have the energy to be a good leader. Giving without becoming poor means sharing the best you have to offer, not giving away all your energy, time and power. Generosity must not be confused with sainthood or martyrdom — it’s a way of being that can energize givers and their relationships.

3. Generosity strengthens personal and professional relationships with compassion and understanding. Who can forget the person who connects us to our next job, or a new friend? Employees remember the moments when bosses became leaders, really listening to the circumstances behind a problem at work and generously offering support. Everyone values generosity; it’s an essential kindergarten value that adults sometimes need to relearn. Sharing generously becomes a source of power for compassionate leaders.


Maybe generosity needs to be part of a workplace culture to be truly accepted, easily given and received. In a stingy, competitive culture where bonuses and promotions must be earned the hard way, generosity might well be punished or resented. But the young Anne Frank was not wrong in her conviction. Even in an ungenerous culture, generosity transforms relationships.

When I worked at the MacArthur Foundation, I learned a lot about generosity. The organization’s mission of giving and empowerment was part of my department’s particular culture. Meetings included healthy, delicious food. Everyone, whether a program officer or a xerox clerk, was encouraged to pursue their education and take care of themselves. Resources were available and shared. The result was that we all felt a great deal of loyalty to our boss, our department and the organization. It’s one of the few workplaces I remember fondly, not just as a stepping stone to my career, but as a place I felt at home for the time I spent there.

Have you ever experienced the blessing of being a generous leader? Have you worked for a generous leader? Is generosity a value that matters in your life? Is generosity naive or necessary? Please, share your stories!

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