I’ve been thinking so much, way more than usual, which is a lot, about leadership over the past three years. And more specifically, what kind of leaders will we need for the decade ahead, in the tumultuous times we are living in? Like everyone else in America, I lived through 2020 and I can remember thinking, back on 1/1/21, well we made it through that crazy year, but I didn’t have any idea what was coming ahead.
At least from where I sit, 2021 has roiled the American civic landscape more than 2020 or just about any year in my living memory. So, now what kind of leaders are we going to need?
As much as any single leadership trait, we need leaders at all levels and in all places with a generosity mindset. And frankly, I’ve found myself failing at that trait too often in 2021. Why a generosity mindset? That might sound like we need some kind of nicey-nice, polite, deferential leadership style. This trait is anything but that description. It is a very strategic mindset.
A leader who possesses a generosity mindset knows that the best way to increase a slice is to grow the whole pie. These are leaders who are defined by coming into a setting and looking to see who’s missing from the table and who needs to be connected. It’s about keeping your eye on the ultimate prize and getting past disagreements, detours, and diversions.
There’s less and less of that kind of mindset in our world, and it’s debilitating to civil society. Leaders who possess a generosity mindset are in increasing demand and of paramount value.
The first time I heard that term was from Rosanne Haggerty, the CEO of Community Solutions, when I was asking her how their people walk into a city on an issue as contentious and complex as homelessness. Her reflexive, almost nonchalant, answer was with “a generosity mindset.”
Our civic landscape — across the nonprofit, public and private sectors — has become far too mean-spirited, close-minded, and zero-sum. And three events of 2021 — the January 6 insurrection, the former presidents’ repudiation of the 2020 election, and the unexpected churn about COVID vaccines — has left me feeling less generous and that isn’t doing anyone any good, including myself.
It’s time for me to quit being mad and short-sighted about citizens that see those events differently. If people like me can’t see or build a bridge, then we will truly become a nation of two islands (not just because of a frequent media concoction).
The generosity mindset leaders are the ones who are able to make the hardest things possible. Just recently, somehow the leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives finally navigated their way through to a bipartisan infrastructure bill. I don’t know who to credit, but I can assure you that every last ounce of generous mind and spirit was vital and expended.
If you took a poll of civic and social sector leaders and asked, what is the single most important leadership trait we are going to need for the road ahead, confident “generosity mindset” probably would not be at the top, or probably anywhere, on the list. The definition includes words like big-hearted, bountiful, open-minded, unselfish. Frankly, you can’t even get to strategy, tactics, vision, goals, etc., etc. unless we have enough leaders with a generous mindset in the room.
One of those leaders we need is Michael Smith. At his writing, he is the executive director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and the nominee to be the next CEO of AmeriCorps, formerly known as the Corporation for National and Community Service. The man doesn’t have a non-generous bone in his body. Does that mean he is soft or a pushover or can’t be tough? Hell no. Leaders like Michael Smith will make or break us in the years ahead, whether it’s in Washington, D.C. or Seattle, Wash., or a small Iowa town.
I’ve spent a lot of 2021 just being mad at and about people who don’t see the world in 2021 as I do. I’ve been very Roy Kent (of Ted Lasso fame) much of the time. But just like that fictional curmudgeonly, sometimes-angry, soccer hero (former), I have to find the generous part of my head and heart and I will. If I don’t, I’m part of the problem. We have a severe and chronic generosity deficit in America right now.
We can all easily validate and rationalize why each of us feels that way and no doubt, many leaders will not diverge from that small-minded way of thinking and being. But if enough people like Michael Smith and Rosanne Haggerty show up in the right way, it will make a very big, maybe the difference in where our nation goes and how our social problems get addressed (or not).
A generosity mindset is not about being deferential, courteous, polite. It’s about big minds using their big hearts to bring people together and get the best out of all of them. It’s a trait that has become incredibly, starkly rare and undeniably more valuable, strategic, and truly vital.