What makes a person generous? The answer is abundance. However, we misunderstand abundance if we think of it in terms of “having a lot.” In fact, as Ken Stern of The Atlantic reported in March 2013: “One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentage of their income.” On average, the wealthiest 20% of Americans (those with annual earnings in the top one-fifth of the population) gave 1.3% of their incomes to charity in 2011. In comparison, Americans whose incomes placed them in the bottom 20 percent of the country donated 3.2% of their income during the same year.

If abundance doesn’t come from wealth, then what’s its source? Abundance is first and foremost an attitude about life. It’s intimately connected to how we approach relationships.

Early on in their careers, leaders seek to distinguish themselves. As such, they have a competitive mindset. They want to defeat others in order to win personal victories.

As they mature, leaders begin to understand that they can achieve greater success by linking up with like-minded allies than by working alone. As such, they join with others to win team victories. They find that success is sweeter when shared. 

With even more age and experience, leaders start to figure out that they can enjoy greater influence by adding value to others in the organization than by making direct contributions themselves. At this point, they win coaching victories—helping others to excel. Significance comes from spending time and energy training others to succeed.

Finally, at the pinnacle of influence, people learn to multiply their influence by reproducing themselves in other leaders. They mentor and equip up-and-coming leaders who, in turn, will develop a subsequent generation of influencers. Thus, at their peak, leaders win great victories by empowering a network of leaders to make a transformative impact on the next generation. Here, greatness comes from selfless service; the leader pours his or her life into others so that they can shape the future of society.

To recap, as leaders grow they pass through a series of phases in which they discover ever-greater abundance.

Stage 1: Striving for personal success.
These leaders have the rewards all to themselves.

Stage 2: Sharing success with a team.
These leaders split rewards with their teammates.

Stage 3: Spending resources to coach others to victory.
These leaders watch from the sidelines as others win rewards.

Stage 4: Serving other leaders so that they can guide the next generation to success.
These leaders oftentimes never see the rewards of their labor during their lifetime.

Moving from stage #1 to stage #4, a leader:

  • Gives more to other people
  • Receives fewer rewards firsthand
  • Gains influence

The bottom line: Abundance is not having more to give; it’s giving more of what you have. Leaders experience abundance by continually exchanging material rewards (money, power, fame) for relational influence. To paraphrase a Hebrew proverb: “Whoever hoards life’s benefits will impoverish himself, and whoever gives them away will live abundantly.”

Thought to Ponder

Take a moment to post a comment on how your life has been enriched by giving. How can you challenge yourself to a greater level of generosity during this holiday season?

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