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Leading with Generosity

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
~ Lao Tzu

When we think of generosity, our thoughts automatically drift to gifts of money or charity. In the context of leadership, there are other gifts that don’t have monetary value, but whose values can’t be overstated. These include giving someone a chance, giving someone the benefit of the doubt and giving others a reason to want to work for you.

These are gifts that require giving others latitude, permission to make mistakes and all the information they need to do the job. It’s giving them the authority that goes with responsibility—it’s giving them due credit for their ideas.

In a nutshell, all of this translates to generosity of spirit, a quality we admire in leaders.

Generosity, a word that once meant “of noble birth,” used to be associated with members of the aristocracy who, by virtue of their privileges, were expected to show generosity towards those in lesser standing.

Leaders too, by virtue of their positions and the power and privileges they hold relative to those they lead, have the same expectations and obligations.

A prime obligation is to lead with a generous heart and to be guided by a nobility of mind. A leader’s generosity has a positive spreading effect; conversely, its absence has a series of negative consequences that, if leaders paused to reflect on them, may just stop them in their tracks.

I’ve always been a firm believer that our fire personnel need more than just “nice, good paying jobs close to home.” Most fire personnel want to find meaning in their jobs—they want to feel they’re a part of something bigger and something better. They want to know that what they do matters.

They’re your department's human capital—your organization's greatest assets. A fire service leader with a generous spirit understands this need and connects the dots for their people—the dots that help them see how the work they perform, no matter how small it may be in the scheme of things, has a bearing on the ultimate vision of the fire-rescue organization.

There’s a lot of talk these days about lack of engagement in the workforce. Imagine how engaged people are when their leader makes them feel they’re a fundamental part of the success of the organization; that everyone from the rookie firefighter through the ranks, including the civilian personnel, constitutes a binding thread, tightly interwoven into company fabric—each equally doing its part to give the fabric its strength.

A leader with a generous spirit delegates not just routine work, but understands about delegating worthwhile work that becomes a gift of development and growth for someone else. How we love those leaders—the ones who dismiss micromanagement and knowledge hoarding. Those leaders who make us want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work to give them the very best we have to offer. These are the leaders who get our discretionary effort, every day.

So, what about sharing gifts of information? According to a survey on effective motivation, one of the top 10 things individuals want in the workplace is the ability to be “in” on things. The question you need to ask yourself, as a fire service leader, is whether you share information with your employees.

I understand there’s some information that can’t be shared with all the rank and file, but sharing information with your subordinates will make them feel they’re in on things. We’ve all come across some leaders who are inclined to hoard crucial information as the currency of power. Leaders with a generous spirit give employees a chance to get under the hood and to be a part of the inner circle. Freely and generously sharing know-how, expertise and ideas isn’t just beneficial for personnel; it’s a smart way of doing business.

While generosity in its pure sense is altruistic, you do still get something back from it: surprise dividends in the form of recycling goodwill, a surplus of cooperation and the sheer satisfaction of seeing another benefit from our giving of ourselves, our time, our attention, our knowledge, the very best we have to offer those who cross our paths at work or life.

We’ll never know what opportunities we may have missed in life by showing up tight-fisted. It’s hard to receive anything if we don’t open our hands to give.

As a leader, giving people the gift of not just our appreciation for good work, but our genuine admiration for their talents, is generosity of spirit at its pinnacle. This is the difference between saying to someone “great job” versus “this was pure genius”; “I appreciate your help” versus “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

When it comes to genuine praise, like the sun at high noon, give splendidly. When you see good work, say it—and say it from the heart, just as you thought it. Free the thought and let it breathe. Let it fly out there in the form of generous words and watch what you get back. Giving is ultimately sharing.

As fire service leaders, we sometimes have trouble showing generosity of spirit to our personnel. These practical tips will enhance your generosity of spirit:

  • Give people a sense of importance. Consider what small actions you can take intentionally today to make people feel the work they do is important, that they themselves are important to your team.
  • Give feedback, not criticism. If giving frequent criticism is your style of management, consider some of these questions: Is your motivation genuine or is it to gain points? Are you stopping to reflect how you might deliver the feedback while still honoring the other person?
  • Give people visibility. Giving people visibility in your organization is a special gift we bestow to help others shine and grow. Consider that personnel like to know that their boss’s boss knows the great contributions they made to a project or about their significant effort in writing a report that doesn’t bear their names. Knowing their leader is representing the rank and file well to upper management is a high-octane motivator and produces fierce loyalty.
  • Give anonymously. Real generosity of spirit is doing something for someone without his or her knowledge.
  • Know when to forgive. A characteristic of a generous person is a total lack of resentment—it’s in effect being too noble or too big for that. Who do you need to forgive? What do you need to let go of?
  • Give encouragement. Look around and find those who need encouragement and resolve to give them that. Consider that some people have never received encouragement in their life—not from teachers, not from bosses, not even from parents.
  • Give opportunity. One of the most valuable gifts we can give someone is giving him or her a chance. What doors can you open for someone who’s well-deserving but not well-positioned to be noticed?
  • Share your knowledge and experience. Resolve to become a philanthropist of know-how. What knowledge, expertise or best practices can you share with others as a way to enrich them?
  • Give moral support. Listen to your employees when they’re talking to you, don’t fiddle with your phone or computer, look at them with kind eyes, encourage them to take chances and advise them that you support them no matter what.
  • Be honest. Honesty, even when it’s uncomfortable, demonstrates individuality and confidence. It earns respect over and above friendship.

Walt Whitman once said, “The habit of giving enhances the desire to give.”

Giving is like building muscles in your body. It requires practice and persistence; once it becomes habitual, you’ll emerge as a strong leader. We as fire service leaders need to put that macho image on the shelf and embrace generosity with our personnel. Remember that one day, the rookie firefighters we just hired will be our future fire service leaders. Now’s the time for you to become that generous leader.

Until next time, be safe!

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