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Creating Successful Leaders

To live magnanimously and care about others is, by and large, a good thing. The generosity of people fuels positive change and makes this (sometimes troubled) world a better place to live. Generous people help alleviate hunger, fight for social justice, and help clean up our water and air through environmental initiatives. These actions, of course, are good things. But can a person ever be too generous?

Well, yes and no. Generosity on its own is a good thing, but it can go too far if you’re giving and giving at the expense of your own well-being and health. This is when generosity actually stops being generosity and becomes “self-sacrifice.”

Author and psychologist Adam Grant distinguishes generosity from self-sacrifice by saying that, “Generosity is not about sacrificing yourself for others — it’s about helping others without harming yourself. It’s not about giving to takers — it is giving in ways that nurture more givers.” Self-sacrifice, on the other hand, is one-sided and may not produce the same positive ripple that generosity does.

Grant uses the book The Giving Tree as an example of toxic self-sacrifice. The tree gives and gives of itself to the boy, until there is nothing left of the tree but a stump. Through its self-sacrifice (and eventual self-destruction), the tree is reduced to nothing, and the boy scarcely cares about her sacrifices. A valuable lesson is lost on the boy. As Grant suggests, he might have planted other trees—laying down a better future for his children and amplifying the tree’s sacrifice. But he didn’t.

Applying this metaphor to the real world, it’s a good idea to be cautious with generosity and make sure it doesn’t morph into self-sacrifice.

When you give endlessly, your well will eventually run dry, and that won’t do anyone (including yourself!) any good. Instead, focus on giving in ways that are sustainable for you and others. Instead of completing someone else’s reports, for instance, teach them how to fill out the reports. Instead of involving yourself in programs that occasionally give to communities (without their input or involvement), focus on programs that uplift and involve the people in those communities. For instance, the Urban Roots program in St. Paul, MN teaches young adults valuable life and leadership skills by teaching them how to garden, conserve, and cook.

This all goes back to the old adage, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish; he’ll eat for a lifetime.”

Furthermore, if you feel yourself burning out from constantly giving to others, that’s a signal that you need to step back, take a break, and evaluate your next steps. It’s possible that the path you’re currently on is too demanding and requires too much self-sacrifice. What could you possibly change to ease your responsibilities? What support do you need?

Evaluating and making changes to your current situation and is not selfish. It’s necessary. Giving and giving can only take you so far—once your leafy branches are stripped away and your trunk is cut down, what then? Instead, be mindful of your generosity, intentionally plan how you will give to others, and make sure you’re not tiptoeing into self-sacrifice territory. Your intentional generosity will make a world of difference.


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