Do We Underestimate the Importance of Generosity in Leadership?


There are numerous studies of character traits in leaders. Human resource experts have advised us on what to look for in those who would be potential leaders. Management development focuses on behaviors that build the trust in others that is essential in a primary role of a leader: fostering change. I don’t ever recall generosity having been emphasized in any of these discussions.

I’m reminded of this by the current interest in the subject of happiness led by, among others, Arthur Brooks of this faculty. Various studies have shown that one of the sources of happiness is generosity. Repeatedly, neurologists and others have found that that portion of the brain associated with happiness—which then secretes oxytocin and dopamine associated with happiness, pleasure, and social bonding—is stimulated by giving to a degree roughly equivalent to receiving. (Both vary based on such things as the nature of the gift and the relationship of the giver and receiver.)

“Having worked with leaders of every stripe, it has always seemed to me that leaders of organizations emphasizing servant leadership have a kind of peace of mind.”

This leads to the question of whether, as investors, for example, we want our leaders to be happy. We laud such things as the ability to teach, listen, and learn; determination; humility; frugality; and other qualities. The ability to deal with loneliness at the top of organizations is the subject of many articles. We discuss appropriate uses of power. Happiness is rarely on the list, and the generosity that leads to happiness, if mentioned at all, carries with it a suspicion that a leader could be “giving away the store.” Check out the available literature on generosity, and you get a meager amount of writing on nonprofit leadership, how to stimulate tithing in your church, and even gift-giving that builds client retention.

Having worked with leaders of every stripe, it has always seemed to me—and it may be my imagination working overtime—that leaders of organizations emphasizing servant leadership have a kind of peace of mind. To what extent does it come from serving others, either literally (as in the old ServiceMaster Company) or through behaviors that encourage personal development in others?

For years, my colleagues and I, based on our research, have advocated for the notion of hiring for attitude and training for skills. Attributes of attitude are learned from birth. They are changed only with great difficulty in adulthood. And few for-profit organizations are in the business of doing it. Generosity falls under the rubric of attitude.

“One hypothesis, perhaps waiting to be researched, is that generosity is related to boundaryless behavior.”

We have over the years lauded the notion of boundaryless behaviors—sharing of talent, ideas, and other resources—in organizations. They involve putting the good of the organization above one’s own short-term welfare or performance with the goal in mind of long-term returns. They are at the center of the legends I’ve told and probably retold about organizations as diverse as Nucor Steel, 3M, Google, the US Marine Corps, Mayo Clinic, and, yes, Harvard Business School, just to mention several of many. One hypothesis, perhaps waiting to be researched, is that generosity is related to boundaryless behavior.

To the extent that happiness is linked to good health, both mental and physical, as long-term investors we have a stake in the generosity—and by extension, happiness—of those leading our organizations. Some will argue that we already place a great deal of emphasis on these things in the selection of our leaders. As the argument goes, it isn’t that hard. Just look for behaviors that suggest interest in the accomplishments of others.

Do we underestimate the importance of generosity in leadership? What do you think?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.


  • Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It (Basic Books, 2008).
  • Jenny Santi, The Giving Way to Happiness: Stories and Science Behind the Life-Changing Power of Giving (TarcherPerigree, 2015).

Your feedback to last month’s column

Do Leaders Learn More From Success or Failure?

If memorability is a measure, leaders appear to learn more from failure than from success. Dan Wallace emailed me about a case he remembered in an HBS class about an entrepreneur who had messed up a cable TV business opportunity. He commented, “I had real sympathy for the guy because I’d been him. At my five-year reunion, I noticed that many of my sectionmates had by then experienced a failure, and they were better people for it. So I would say unequivocally yes, more time spent on failure, especially that it’s just an opportunity to learn.”

Others echoed a similar sentiment. Akash Pant commented that leaders learn from failure when they adopt the right attitude. As he put it, “Once the leader becomes the student, then they would be more open to embrace the failure and learn from it.” Mike Mulato Chilewe said, “Failure is the best lesson for success … I use my failed experience as a case study for futuristic business solutions.”

Briggs Morrison suggested, “The more applicable question, in my opinion, is whether a leader does something different” (because of success or failure) … “If things are going really well, leaders will probably only do something different if they see new opportunities or emerging threats … if things aren’t going well, a competent leader should change something in hopes of turning things around.”

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top