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Successful leaders give more than they get

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Everyone has an opinion about leadership. Whether you’re the back-seat driver constantly offering unsolicited advice to the person behind the steering wheel, or the armchair spectator shouting instructions at your favourite team’s coach, or the bar stool politician telling everyone at happy hour how the country ought to be run — we all feel we’d do a better job if we were given a chance at the helm.

My first leadership experiences were in my teens — as a leader in my church youth group and as Head Girl of my high school. I started out as a reluctant leader, pushed into leadership positions by teachers, mentors and peers who saw leadership potential in me even though I wasn’t keen myself.

I still remember at age 14 going away on a weekend retreat with my church youth group. The adult leaders insisted I had to take charge of a small group since I was one of the older kids. No matter how hard I tried to excuse myself they wouldn’t let me out of it. If I was going on the trip I had to be a small group leader.

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I was looking forward to the retreat. I was a swot, one of those kids who loved studying and enjoyed tests, so the retreat was going to be a welcome break from all the hard work. It was my time simply to relax. Or so I had thought — until I was told I had to lead.

Being a leader meant I couldn’t just show up on the day. I had to prepare study questions for the small group discussions. I had to be fully alert to facilitate. I couldn’t daydream or decide not participate if I didn’t want to.

Being a leader meant while other kids went off and played or did whatever they wanted, I had to attend meetings to plan the next session’s activities, give feedback and get further instructions. I had to keep an eye out for members of my group to make sure everyone was safe and happy, playing together nicely with no one being left out. Instead of grabbing my food at mealtimes, I had to supervise and ensure everyone received their fair share before I could finally sit down to eat.

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I wanted to go on the retreat to have fun and let my hair down, but being a leader meant I was restricted in what I could do and how I could behave.

Many people aspire to leadership because of the privilege leadership brings. But my early experiences taught me leadership is primarily about responsibility. There were very few tangible benefits to being a church youth group leader, but plenty of accountability.

Life is about give and take. Sometimes you give, other times you receive. We all know what good leadership or bad leadership looks like and feels like. And when we sense our leaders are no good, it’s usually because they’re taking more than they’re giving. They’re more focussed on enjoying the benefits of leadership than on being accountable for their leadership responsibilities.

In his book ‘Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success’, Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant shows that while in the past people relied on a combination of passion, hard work, talent and luck to succeed, the 21st century success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others.

Grant writes; “Success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?”

Grant says people operate as either takers, matchers or givers in the workplace. Takers strive to get as much as possible. They like to get more than they give. They live by the philosophy; “If I don’t look out for myself first no one will.” So they put their own interests first and only help others strategically when the benefits outweigh personal costs.

Matchers operate on the principle of fairness. When they help others they expect reciprocity. They aim to strike an even balance between giving and getting and their relationships are governed by equal exchanges of favours.

Givers contribute to others without expecting anything in return. They prefer to give more than they get and pay more attention to other people’s needs. Givers are generous in sharing their time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections. Givers readily provide mentoring and share credit.

Successful givers are not pushovers or doormats. They willingly ask for help when they need it. They recognise the difference between taking and receiving. Taking is using other people solely for your own gain; receiving is accepting help from others while maintaining a willingness to pay it back and forward.

Through his research, Grant has observed ‘the giver advantage” across a wide range of professions, countries and cultures. Givers are more successful. And although givers, takers, and matchers are all capable of achieving success, when givers succeed it creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. When takers win someone else usually loses and research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and actively look for ways to knock them down.

Success depends on teamwork and service — so aim to be a giver.

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