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Give an Inch; Take a Mile

This article is about generosity. Actually, it's about a side of generosity that is not often discussed when the topic of generosity is written about in the context of business and leadership. I always knew this idiom as "give an inch and they'll take a ruler" since a ruler is made of inches, but when I started writing this article I looked up the idiom and discovered that the more popular form of this ends with "mile" not ruler, which I don't understand.

Nevertheless, they, fortunately, both mean the exact same thing; you give something away willingly and some people take advantage of you. Welcome to the world. I know that last part sounds a bit cynical but we all relate to this idiom because we all have had relationships that were lopsided at some point and no matter how hard you worked at leveling the playing field, it somehow always tipped back in the wrong direction.

In April 2013, Forbes published an article titled 7 Ways That Generosity Can Lead To Success that described what so many articles on the topic of generosity talk about; how being generous can lead to a more productive, successful and happier life. While this is mostly correct in my experience, the first point made in the article is perhaps the most interesting one in terms of understanding how we can best avoid repeating this idiom.

The first point mentioned is about not being completely selfless. The idea is that we shouldn't give so much away of our time, talents and treasure that we place limitations on our own ability to continue to be effective. It's sort of like another quip I've heard often; "That person is generous to a fault"

Some people simply don't have this particular challenge of being too generous. Some are quite the opposite, holding everything as close to the vest as they can; sharing only when it directly benefits them and their cause.

While others, simply like to see people do well and get a sense of accomplishment and personal reward from being a part of other's success. This article is for those that are on the latter side of that spectrum and the real challenge is how do you balance, or even reconcile, generosity with your professional success. Most studies tell us that we should continue to be generous and that we should even diversify how we apply generosity by involving others to be generous along with us in a given event or cause.

In leadership roles, generosity can often be misunderstood. It can appear as a form of persuasion to get something you want from another person rather than be viewed for what it often is; you being generous. Generosity, like many other character traits, needs our attention and awareness so we can manage it and make it appropriate for the audiences and situations we encounter. By that last statement I don't mean that you need to stop being yourself, I mean we need to be sensitive to how our actions may be interpreted and even more, we need to learn how much generosity makes sense in a particular set of circumstances.

Consider some of these principles when it comes to generosity, especially in your professional life and circles:

  • You don't HAVE TO give, you GET TO give - This is obvious right? Not really. I meet many people who feel obligated to share more information than needed or to be very generous. While many are generous because they want to be, some feel the burden. Either way, it's a privilege you control, treat it like a gift because it is.

  • Being generous and being gratuitous are not the same - To be gratuitous implies that you are offering something at no cost or doing something without charge or payment. Some people confuse this with generosity. Being generous may, at times, involve you doing something without charge or payment but more so, it involves your willingness to perhaps go the extra mile, share a little more information, be available with more of your time - all that doesn't always mean you won't or shouldn't be compensated in some way unless of course, you choose to be "gratuitous" as well as generous.

  • Weigh the cost of generosity in business - to my earlier point, this does not imply that you need to change who you are or ignore your values; it means simply to be wise and think through, to the extent you can, the outcomes of certain acts of generosity. For example, your willingness to help a colleague by sharing your business contacts(s) should be done when you are certain that your colleague will represent you well and equally as important, you know that your business contact(s) are interested in making the acquaintance. Not all relationships are created equal so it's critical to be aware of the potential dynamics and political gymnastics that may occur.

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." (Winston Churchill)

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