Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 11, 2023
by Neil Senturia
It’s that time of the year.
The curmudgeon in me mostly reflects on the incredible effort by the community of retailers to get me to spend money on stuff I don’t need, don’t want, doesn’t fit, already have that still works.
After I buy it, makes me feel guilty that I spent too much, and that I should have simply sent the money to a charity that does the good works that I emotionally support, but that I am frequently too lazy or self-absorbed to actually execute on the intellectually good intention.
Yes, for sure I like the idea of generosity of spirit. As long as it is in someone else. Then, of course, I wake up, kick myself and commit to take steps to be a better person.
It is proven that the brain secretes oxytocin and dopamine when we engage in acts of generosity. Those neurotransmitters are closely tied to happiness, pleasure and social bonding.
In other words, pal, when you are giving rather than receiving, you have a better chance of feeling good about it, and it also strengthens your chances of getting into heaven.
What role does generosity play in leadership? James Heskett, professor at Harvard, studied leadership characteristics in successful CEOs and asks the question, “Do we, as investors, want our leaders to be happy?” He says that traditionally, we laud many characteristics, such as building trust, exhibiting humility and listening to employees. Being happy isn’t usually very high on the list, if at all.
Who ever asked the CEO if he/she were happy? Have you ever seen a slide in the board deck presentation with a budgeted vs. actual on the happiness scale? Servant leadership is a terrific idea in the abstract, in actual practice, “it carries the suspicion that the leader might be giving away the store.”
Heskett notes that generosity is not mentioned as one of the key leadership attributes. It is often only a side thought, as in don’t forget to leave a tip for the Uber driver. But it is proven that “boundaryless behavior,” i.e. putting the good of the organization above your own short-term welfare, is one of the key drivers of long-term success.
Finally, Heskett argues that leaders who behave with generosity get the added benefit of being happier. You can quickly see the obvious flywheel effect with the two closely tied together.
In other words, no one wants to work for a jerk.
But generosity is not innate. It is learned and sometimes, even with the best of intentions, it is forgotten. A confession.
Recently I came home to find a giant truck with an enormous flatbed parked directly in front of my house. I had a couple of my own workers coming that day, so I point out to the driver that I own the house he is parked in front of and can he please move his truck.
He points out that I might own the house, “but you don’t own the street.” I am not exactly thrilled with his geographic explanation on the subject of land use. I walk into my house, and then I turn around and go back outside and apologize.
His name is Arturo. He has some huge machines to cut up the concrete in my neighbor’s backyard. Lots of heavy machinery. I feel like a jerk for having complained. He offers to move the truck; I insist he stay put. He offers, I insist. Finally, I convince him, the truck stays. Handshakes.
Of course, it’s just like the neurologists say. First I was embarrassed that I ever asked him to move, but then felt happy that I had done the right thing. A tiny step for me to continue to learn generosity of spirit. Pass the dopamine.
I have a friend, a very senior executive, who is enormously talented, who works in a large company for a CEO who is a jerk. My friend is miserable and eventually he will leave. He has been unable to get the CEO to listen to his issues. The guy is obtuse, tone deaf and abusive.
I am going to suggest that next time he simply go up to the guy and ask him, “Hey, are you happy?”
Senturia is a serial entrepreneur who invests in early stage technology companies.
Rule No. 788:
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.