The Paradox of Leadership Give and Take

When it comes to leadership give and take, are you a “taker,” or a “giver?”

Western leaders have been conditioned for generations to believe that the way to advance is to claim as much as possible, to take more than you give. I don’t have to look too far to see leaders make personal gain the objective of business life, and almost any means to achieve it is fair game.

Hard work, perseverance, passion, and talent are valuable, of course.  However, in the human dynamics of business, taking what you can, even if it’s from others, is often the method used to attain rewards.  But what if there was a paradoxical truth that showed the opposite to be the case—that by giving away what you have, you’ll get even more?  There is substance to this truth, and it warrants examination.

The majority of employees see their bosses fitting the mold of the “taker.” These leaders are viewed as prioritizing their personal needs above everyone else’s, in a competitive arena where there are definitive winners and losers.

This perception is so common we stereotype managers by their interpersonal behavior.  An aggressive, self-serving leader who gets what they want by using people to get it is seen as powerful, competent, and productive.  We assume this taker is a person who will work their way up the corporate ladder effectively.  Conversely, leaders who put their needs last, who serve their people by giving more than they take, are seen as weak, interdependent, and insecure. These “givers” are viewed not as likely to advance.

Again, cultural experience makes some of these things seem factual, but looking deeper reveals another reality.

Adam Grant, in his book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin 2013), describes the contrast between the two basic styles of leadership social interaction: the taker and the giver.

Taker vs. Giver

  • Takers are more self-focused, motivated to succeed first, and give (if necessary) down the road. The ends justify the means, so they believe. Givers are focused on others, and sense the need to give of themselves first, and success will come later. The benefits to others are paramount.
  • Takers see themselves as superior and set apart from the rest. Givers recognize that they belong to a team with diverse skills and that they all depend on each other.
  • Takers are more independent, claim more credit, and are reluctant to share knowledge, privilege, or power. Givers are more willing to ask for help, and to share credit, knowledge, and rewards.

In the traditional mindset that claims the spoils go to the victor, the takers have the perceived edge in leadership success.  And initially they may. But over time, as author Grant points out, success depends heavily on how leaders approach their interactions with other people.

What do you think? Do you see leaders who give and take where you work? Which of them appear to be more successful in your organization?   Would you prefer to work for a “taker” or a “giver”?  Get in touch with me – I’d love to discuss this with you.  I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.

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