Provision #726: Generosity Matters

Laser Provision

We took four suitcases on our recent trip to Israel: one for my wife, one for me, one for our dress-up clothes, and one filled with gifts. Before we left, we only knew of a few people to whom we were definitely going to give presents. That didn’t stop my wife, however, from filling the suitcase to the brim. Her philosophy is easily summarized: “You can never have too many gifts.” Sure enough, by the end of our almost three weeks of living and working in Israel, we had given away every single present and even wished we had brought more. Did we go home with an empty suitcase? Hardly! It was filled up again with gifts for our friends and family back home. What does this have to do with leadership? Everything! Generosity matters. Read on.

LifeTrek Provision


There are at least two kinds of leaders in the world: those who ask, “What can my position do for me?” and those who ask, “What can my position do for others?” Of the two, what kind of leaders do you want to work with and serve under? I have no doubt that most if not all of you reading this Provision would prefer to work with leaders who are more concerned with others than with themselves. Generosity matters when it comes to leadership, so it helps to understand and cultivate that spirit on a daily basis.

Generosity is certainly not the only instinct available to human beings. There has been, in fact, quite a debate as to whether selfishness or generosity has been more important in the course of not only human evolution but of natural selection in general. At one time, biologists made it sound as though “survival of the fittest” was the brutish norm of the universe. Selfishness, in an organismic sense, was viewed as the driving force behind long-term survival.

Now, however, scientists are taking a more nuanced view. With the advent of “selfish gene theory,” popularized most notably by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, generosity comes back into play. Genes may be savagely competitive, ruthlessly exploitative, and even deceitful in their determined attempts to replicate themselves from one generation to the next. But genes cannot replicate on their own; they require carriers which introduces many layers of subtlety and complexity. If generosity works, then selfish genes are happy to let their hosts share and even to sacrifice.

It turns out that human beings are not the only animals who have a penchant for generosity. I have long enjoyed reading the work of Frans de Waal, a Dutch-born primatologist who has lived and worked in the USA since 1981. He now teaches psychology at Emory University, where he has become famous for looking at human society through the lens of animal behavior. In his 2010 book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, de Waal makes a strong case for generosity as being a near universal trait. And the closer to human beings we get, the more generosity is found.

I love his many descriptions of experiments with monkeys and other primates to determine the limits as well as the interplay of selfishness and generosity. When given a choice, monkeys, chimpanzees, and other primates overwhelmingly prefer generosity to selfishness. They apparently feel better when individuals in addition to themselves benefit from the many experiments that have been conducted. That parallels the many field observations as to their prosocial behaviors. The group seems to have a more powerful tug than the individual.

But selfishness and generosity are never far apart. “Egoism,” de Wall observes, “always lurks around the corner.” In their work with capuchin monkeys, de Waal and his colleagues have found three ways to kill the natural tendency to be nice:

  1. Pair up two strangers, who have never met each other before, and generosity plummets. Monkeys are in a much more selfish mood with partners they have never met before.
  2. Put a physical barrier between two monkeys, such that they cannot see each other. Even if they know each other well, and even if they have seen the other through a peep hole, generosity again plummets. The monkeys act is if the other is not there, and they become completely selfish.
  3. Make the rewards of being generous inequitable. When generosity leads to a perceived parity of benefits, monkeys are happy to share and share alike. When generosity leads to perceived inequalities, however, making one partner better off than another, competition kicks in and monkeys become very selfish indeed.

Sound familiar? Although human beings have more abilities than monkeys to transcend unfamiliarity, distance, and inequality, all three still come into play. Xenophobia (fear of strangers) is a well-known phenomenon, as is the importance of putting a face on tragedy to increase generosity. Until people see the devastating affects of a tornado, a tsunami, an earthquake, or a fire, they are not prone to give much money.

Inequity also has its limits. Even in the USA, where the American dream encourages people to make as much money and to become as rich as they can, there is a certain discomfort with the growing gap between the rich and the poor. While we were in Israel, I mentioned to some friends that the top 5% of households in America own 72% of the financial wealth and the next 15% of the households own another 21%. That leaves 7% of the financial wealth in America for the remaining 80% of the population. In relative terms, most of those people own nothing at all.

There is even more inequity when it comes to the ratio between CEO pay and average worker pay in large corporations. In the USA, that ratio was 42:1 in 1960. Things escalated to a high of 531:1 in 2000, at the height of the stock market bubble when CEOs were cashing in on big stock options. In 2007, the ratio had dropped to 344:1. By way of comparison, the ratio in Europe is about 25:1.

Our friends in Israel were both astonished and dismayed by these statistics. If human beings were monkeys, such inequalities would lead to very selfish and antisocial behaviors indeed. Failure to spread the wealth around more equitably would not only make people put themselves first, at the expense of others, but would also generate significant fights and conflicts. We, in fact, see this happening in places like Greece and other distressed economies.

Time will tell as to whether or not selfish and antisocial behaviors will come to rule the day in the wake of such wealth inequalities. One thing is clear, however, when it comes to mitigating and, perhaps, forestalling that eventuality: generosity matters. If those at the top do not share and share generously with those at the bottom, whether voluntarily or through public policy initiatives, then the entire system of winners and losers will quickly explode. Even human beings, with our great imaginations, have limits as to how long people can go on hoping for a better tomorrow without seeing any results.

Such generosity has long been a staple of the American society. Perhaps no other country has such a strong philanthropic tradition as the USA. As one of the most unfettered capitalist economies in the world, Americans have sought to balance things out with some of the most unprecedented generosity. In this decade alone, more than $2 trillion USD is expected to be given to charity. This includes the giving of notable billionaires, like Gates, Buffett, and Zuckerberg, as well as the giving of everyone else. Americans have a penchant for addressing inequalities and meeting needs through altruistic and prosocial behaviors.

Generosity, as much as the American dream, is part of what makes this society work. Generosity can never take the place of government, but public policy without personal generosity fails to understand human nature. People do not want to be told what to do, even if they are being told to be nice. People do want to give, however, for their own good reasons and in their own good time. Even more than monkeys, human beings have a capacity for empathy that connects the dots between self and others. Your needs and my needs are interrelated, so we may as well help each other to make life more wonderful.

Unfortunately, many leaders forget this important truth. Power and position can separate and isolate leaders from those we work with and serve. Instead of approaching others with a charitable and generous spirit, leadership becomes all about us. What can I do? What can I get? How can I get what I want? What is in this for me?

Questions such as these are not the stuff of great leadership. Great leaders are generous leaders. We are more concerned with the success of others and of our organizations than with the success of ourselves. Robert Greenleaf referred to such leadership as Servant Leadership in his seminal work of the same name. That works for me, but I also like the image of Community Leadership put forward by Juana Bordas in her book, Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age. Principle three, “Mi Casa Es Su Casa” views such leadership as the natural extension of collectivist cultures:

“The Latino saying “Mi casa es su casa” (My house is your house) reflects a sprawling sense of inclusiveness and generosity. It encapsulates a joy in sharing and implies “What I have is also yours.”

“Generosity is also evident in one of the Latino golden rules: if everyone contributes and pitches in, no one bears the burden and there will be more than enough to go around.”

“The antecedents of Latino generosity can be found in the indigenous cultures of the Americas. In early Indian cultures, people often competed with each other to see who could give away the most. No one wanted to be seen as a person who had more than others. Giving was seen as a way to honor people and to strengthen collective ties.”

“Black cultures also evidence a universal compassion. Despite the fact the their economic rungs are substantially lower, giving and taking care of others is a long-time trend of the Black community. When people succeed, they are expected to help others and to give back to the community. The desire to assist others was reported by 95 percent of the people surveyed, who described it as a moral obligation, and their charitable giving was 25 percent more of their discretionary income than Whites.”

It is through generosity that great leaders, in any culture, build trust and wield authority. Such generosity is not just a matter of money; it more often involves listening to and spending time with people, participating in rituals and celebrations, and working for community advancement. By caring for people and their needs, by attending to their feelings, great leaders evoke greatness from people. It becomes a virtuous cycle that helps to get things done.

Coaching Inquiries: What kind of leader are you? Are you more concerned with your own well being or the well being of others? How could you become more oriented around generosity and caring? How could you see those attributes as competitive advantages rather than as disadvantages? What’s stopping you from being generous with someone right now?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.


Reading your Provision on how Gratitude Matters truly made my day:) Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom with so much dedication and heart. A Japanese friend of mine said that gratitude is the gateway to unconditional love, it is the heart opener:) connecting us with life. 


I loved your Provision on gratitude. I enjoyed many things about our coaching class with you and Megan and one of them was the Values in Action Character Survey. Number one on my results was gratitude!! I believe that gratitude determines attitude and you captured my sentiments so eloquently in your Provision. I love all of these Provisions you write. You and Megan are truly making a difference. I’m glad you are enjoying your time in Israel.


Your Provision on gratitude was truly remarkable. I sent it on to a friend, and I sent your Provision,Data Matter, onto another. Thanks you, thank you, thank you!! Hope that sinks in. 🙂


Gratitude has always been an important part of my life, but your Provision on gratitude brought home the importance of the gratitude journal to me. I have started to keep that now, and look forward to the blessings that will bring. Thanks!


I don’t know how you come up with these things every week. What an enormous amount of work. It is truly a gift to the world. Thanks! 


May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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