Prof. Adam Grant: Successful Leadership Styles Include Giving

Adam Grant, an award-winning Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, is a leading thinker on the topic of leadership styles. His widely-acclaimed book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, was just named by Fortune magazine as one of "5 Must-Read Business Books" of 2013. With powerful insights from both social science and the real world, Grant contradicts the traditional wisdom that business leaders need to be powerful communicators and take-no-prisoners negotiators.

Professor Adam GrantGrant's groundbreaking research asserts that it's the "givers," the leaders who balance their own interests while also considering the interests of others, who are the most successful middle market business leaders: "Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them," notes Grant. As Grant tells the National Center for the Middle Market, "middle-market companies benefit from building a culture of givers, where employees are willing to help colleagues and customers without strings attached.  When these acts of giving - knowledge sharing, mentoring, introducing - become the norm, middle market companies are better off in terms of profits, customer satisfaction, employee retention, and operating expenses."

In a business world where teams and relationships are more important every day, Grant believes that "giving" leadership styles that share value and foster community are the optimal way to lead. "Givers reject the notion that interdependence is weak," says Grant, "givers are more likely to see interdependence as a source of strength, a way to harness the skills of multiple people for a greater good." Leaders who seek to dominate and control with "powerful communication" also inhibit peer-to-peer sharing, notes Grant. Such leaders "actually undermine group performance" by "preventing members from communicating good ideas. Grant suggests that giving, collaborative leadership styles motivate teams best: "Expressing vulnerability, asking questions, talking tentatively, and seeking advice can open doors to gaining influence."

Grant asserts that givers also have an edge in negotiations. "The most effective negotiators," Grant says, "reported high concern for their own interests and high concern for their counterparts' interests" and also add value by being more creative in finding solutions that address everyone's interests. When negotiating with takers, Grant recommends that givers try a "matching strategy," offering value only when it's received first. Trust initially, but after getting burned, pay close attention to reciprocity.

Grant describes several examples of successful leaders who put giving first while never becoming doormats. Adam Rifkin, for example, is a highly-successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur who's built three companies and grown his influence by giving without strings attached. Rifkin has done more than just help individuals with favors large and small, notes Grant. He's built an entire community of givers. Successful givers like Rifkin "get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them," says Grant. Such leaders build trust, loyalty, and good feelings throughout their organizations.

Building a Culture of Giving

Middle-market companies should take three steps to build a culture of giving, Grant tells the NCMM:

  1. Screen out takers in the hiring process. That way, the natural givers can contribute without worrying about being exploited, and because matchers tend to follow the norm and reciprocate how others treat them, they'll give too.
  2. In performance evaluations and promotion decisions, it's important to stretch beyond individual results and track the impact of a candidate's success on others. This increases the odds that acts of giving are rewarded and that givers will rise to the top, rather than sinking to the bottom.
  3. Create norms that encourage and legitimate help-seeking.

But givers can get taken advantage of. In Give and Take, Grant relates stories of giving leaders getting burned by pushy takers who play a zero-sum game. In one instance, a highly-successful Australian financial adviser named Peter Audet agreed to buy the client list from a cash-strapped colleague who was leaving the business. The trustful Audet began working with these new clients only to find that, after a few months, the former colleague had returned to financial advising and started stealing back his old clients.

Grant emphasizes leadership styles that effectively avoid the pitfalls of exploitation, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Grant believes that givers must act "in ways that are energizing rather than exhausting," which means taking care of themselves and their own interests first as a prerequisite to sharing with others. Grant calls this balance between the interests of self and others "otherish giving."

Grant ends Give and Take by recommending ten "actions for impact" that can help leaders work better. These include "a change in habits - from talking to listening, self-promoting to advice-seeking, and advocating to inquiring." Grant also recommends "seek[ing] help more often" because "when you ask for help, you're not always imposing a burden. Some people are givers, and by asking for help, you're creating an opportunity for them to express their values and feel valued." As his book's subtitle suggests, Adam Grant does indeed offer a "revolutionary approach to success."

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.