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Written by Michael Blankenship
Published: August 11, 2014

The Generous Servant Leader by David Fagan

Originally published April 2011.

leadingedge_sidebarAre You a Generous Servant Leader?

How often do you, as a leader, practice generosity? Do you use generosity as a tool with which to influence the actions of those whom you lead?  Do you perceive generosity as a means to improve your image among your constituents? Do you give in order to receive?

The concept of generosity in leadership is frequently the most difficult challenge for an aspiring servant leader to overcome. Becoming a giver instead of a taker, and becoming generous in leadership rather than self-serving requires discipline, practice, and perseverance. Many leaders either are consciously a selfish leader, or try to get by without putting forth the effort necessary to truly become a generous leader, so the notion of generosity in the heart of leaders is often left unaddressed.

A Matter of Motive

Leaders of all kinds understand the power of motivation among team members. Leaders of all kinds also understand that motivation can be generated through generosity or the appearance of generosity, though the motivation gained by the latter is short-lived and often backfires, which is discussed below. The administration of generosity is not as simple as simply recognizing its importance, as generosity can come in many forms. Each team member has different motivators. Some may be motivated by a monetary bonus or a raise, though many are not (BPIR, n.d.). Others may be motivated by public praise, some by private praise, some by tangible gifts, or just by the satisfaction of a job well done. Each type of motivation is fed by a different type of giving. For example, a team member who is motivated by private praise may be demotivated by a public display of recognition, and would be better motivated with a well-thought, hand-written thank you card. In contrast, the team member who is motivated by money could honestly care less about the thank you card unless it contains a bonus check.

Any leader, selfish or generous, can benefit from giving to their team; however, the difference between the two is motive. Two sayings illustrate this difference.

‘Tis better to give than to receive. Every opportunity that a leader uses to give pays dividends. Consider a young man who received a substantial and unexpected bonus from his employer. Being newly married, and facing the struggles of a typical young couple, the money could have had a significant impact on the couple’s financial situation; however, the couple felt strongly that they should give that money to their home church. Upon meeting with the pastor of the small, semi-rural church, the couple shared their desire to give the entire amount of the bonus to the church. Surprised, the pastor reached into his desk and pulled out a small piece of paper with a figure scratched on it. You see, the day prior, a widow in the church shared with the pastor that the financial institution that held her mortgage had asked for the full balance of the mortgage or it would begin foreclosure proceedings. The figure scratched on that piece of paper was equal to the bonus given by the young couple. Because the couple had given of themselves, the widow was able to keep her home (R. Morris, 2011).

An important detail of this story is easily overlooked, but must not be lost. The young couple gave the full amount of the bonus, and that was the amount that was needed for the widow to keep her home. Had the couple given anything less than 100%, the widow’s home would have remained in jeopardy. A servant leader cheerfully gives everything he or she has to the cause, allowing recognition for the full fruit of their generosity. Conversely, the selfish leader begrudgingly gives, and gives only the minimum necessary to achieve his or her personal goals. Everything that this leader does not give, he or she keeps. The portion that the selfish leader keeps can potentially stand between the organization and its goals. Additionally, the burden created by this selfishness must be shouldered by the team, often resulting in dissatisfaction, burnout, and turnover.

It is the thought that counts. While leaders of all kinds understand the power of motivation, and how giving can benefit the organization in the attainment of its goals, the selfish leader’s focus in giving is egocentric, based on his or her personal goals, and what he or she can receive from others’ perception of the gift.

While a selfish leader will often give, he or she will most frequently do so with attention drawn to either the gift, or to the act of giving itself, and will often ask for something in return, whether it be a particular behavior from the recipient of the gift, or the reputation as a generous leader. Either way, the motivation to give for the selfish leader is, ultimately, the personal good of the leader.

A generous servant leader is not motivated by personal gain. Recognition, promotion, power, and monetary increase are not the driving forces of his or her choices and actions. Instead, this type of leader is driven by the shared vision, mission, and goals of the team and organization; and he or she gives in order to lead the organization to success. For a true servant leader, generosity is more than something practiced merely to influence others to act in a particular manner, or to mold his image in the minds of those whom he or she leads. For a true servant leader, generosity is a matter of heart, and of character.

Members of an organization are often more perceptive than leaders know or believe. The selfish leader can give in public, but those on the team will ultimately learn his or her true character. This translates into short-term satisfaction, and often short-term results, but rarely results in long-term success. A generous leader, however, gives even when he or she does not believe anyone is looking. Team members will ultimately learn his or her true character as well, but with significantly different results over time. The generous leader’s team will more frequently buy into his or her vision, will overcome obstacles as a team, and celebrate shared victories. Ultimately, this team will have far greater long-term success than that of the selfish leader.

As a consequence, recognition, promotion, power, and increase are often given to the generous leader by those whom they lead. This is because this leader has been a good steward of those very resources.  Through the parable of the sower, we are given a clear illustration of this concept. Jesus states, “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (Matt. 25:29, NASB).


Generosity and giving are not synonyms. In fact, for the selfish leader, the act of giving can be a selfish act. Generosity is, at its root, a matter of the heart. Generous leaders practice generosity for the good of those who follow. Generous leaders do not give in order to manipulate others, or to bolster their own reputations. Generous leaders receive so that they might give. Generous leaders give as an expression of appreciation and care for their teams. Generous leaders sacrifice for the cause. Generous leaders give because they are generous. Generous leaders are not generous because they give.

2_david-faganDavid Fagan, MSL is a graduate of the Master of Strategic Leadership program at Roberts Wesleyan College and the Master of Health Administration Program. Additionally, David holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Management from SUNY Geneseo. He currently holds a leadership role in finance for a Fortune 1000 company and is writing his first book in which he examines servant leadership for Generation Y. David can be reached at fagan_david@roberts.edu.


  • Bible Gateway (n.d.). Passage results: Matthew 25:29 (New American Standard Bible). Retrieved from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2025:29%20&version=NASB
  • BPIR, Business Performance Improvement Resource (n.d.). Employee motivation. Retrieved from http://www.bpir.com/employee-motivation/menu-id-71.html.
  • Morris (2011, February 3). Gateway church: living free series [video file]. Retrieved from http://theblessedlife.com/index.php?a=episodes

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