2013 Athena Leadership Foundation Awards Luncheon | Webster University

2013 Athena Leadership Foundation Awards Luncheon

One evening a man saw an older woman, stranded on the side of Ohmes Road, but even in the dim dusk of day, he could see she needed help. So he pulled up in front of her Mercedes and got out. His Cavalier was still sputtering when he approached her. Even with the smile on his face, she was worried. No one had stopped to help for the last hour or so. Was he going to hurt her? He didn’t look safe; he looked poor and hungry. He could see that she was frightened, standing out there in the cold. He knew how she felt. It was those chills which only fear can put in you.

He said, “I’m here to help you, ma’am. Why don’t you wait in the car where it’s warm? By the way, my name is Bryan Anderson.”

Well, all she had was a flat tire, but for her, that was bad enough. Bryan crawled under the car looking for a place to put the jack, skinning his knuckles a time or two. Soon he was able to change the tire. But he had to get dirty and his hands hurt. As he was tightening up the lug nuts, she rolled down the window and began to talk to him. She told him that she was from Kansas City and was only just passing through. She couldn’t thank him enough for coming to her aid. Bryan just smiled as he closed her trunk. The woman asked how much she owed him. Any amount would have been all right with her. She already imagined all the awful things that could have happened had he not stopped.

Bryan never thought twice about being paid. This was not a job to him. This was helping someone in need, and certainly there were plenty, who had given him a hand in the past. He had lived his whole life that way, and it never occurred to him to act any other way. He told her that if she really wanted to pay him back, the next time she saw someone who needed help, she could give that person the assistance they needed, and Bryan added, “And think of me.”

He waited until she started her car and drove off. It had been a cold and depressing day, but he felt good as he headed for home, disappearing into the twilight. A few miles down the road the woman saw a small cafe. She went in to grab a bite to eat, and take the chill off before she made the last leg of her trip toward home. It was a dingy looking restaurant. Outside were two old gas pumps. The whole scene was unfamiliar to her.

The waitress came over and brought a clean towel to wipe her wet hair. She had a sweet smile, one that even being on her feet for the whole day couldn’t erase. The woman noticed the waitress was nearly eight months pregnant, but the waitress never let the strain and aches change her attitude. She wondered how someone who had so little could be so giving to a stranger. Then she remembered Bryan.

After the woman finished her meal, she paid with a hundred dollar bill. The waitress quickly went to get change for her hundred dollar bill, but her customer had slipped right out the door. She was gone by the time the waitress came back. The waitress wondered where she could be. Then she noticed something written on the napkin. There were tears in her eyes when she read what the woman wrote: “You don’t owe me anything. I have been there too. Somebody once helped me out, the way I’m helping you. If you really want to pay me back, here is what you do: Do not let this chain of giving end with you.” Under the napkin were four more $100 bills.

I love that story of generosity and compassion and how it ends because it gives me an image of giving that is often distant from our everyday realities. Realities where we have been stranded on our own figurative roadsides and watched while others drove on by or worse yet, stopped to poke fun, or worst yet, pretend to help and exploited our need. Realities when we received a large bill and then questioned whether it was counterfeit or there was some string attached. Realities when we may have hesitated to help because we would put ourselves at risk or not see a return for the favor. Realities when we have helped and expected to call in a favor then or in the future—getting value from a transaction rather than adding value. If we take this a step further, don’t we see the signs all around us that giving has too often become associated with the expectation of thanks (wedding gifts), donations (tax deductions), or contributions (positions of influence)? And if those returns on time, talent, resources invested were not available, would our own generosity become more measured and would those of us who seek others’ generosity find ourselves stranded by the side of the road with one flat tire and no where to go?

For those of us who value giving, serving, leading—the gap between aspiration and reality is troubling. We quickly assent to what is expressed in these sayings:

  • “To give without any reward, or any notice, has a special quality of its own.”  Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • “Giving is most blessed and most acceptable when the donor remains completely anonymous”  Anonymous

But living these values of generosity—leading through service in ways that are truly a gift without reward or notice or in an anonymous way—is challenging for us.

How can we lead in ways that serve others, showing a complete commitment to giving without expectation of appreciation, regard, recognition, or return favor in some kind of quid pro quo? I’ll share some ideas today from a book I am reading called Give and Take by Adam Grant. This book is the product of research conducted by and synthesized by an organizational psychologist who is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School. 

Today I’ll share a few of the pertinent findings he discusses related to those who are true givers.  I am, of course, hitting the highlights of his argument and research and hope you’ll find them, as I have, an inspiration to lead and to serve in more authentically generous ways.

Adam Grant notes that the conventional wisdom is that highly successful people have three things in common—motivation, ability, and opportunity.  What he adds to this conventional wisdom—the need for hard work, talent, and luck—is a critical but neglected ingredient: the way we approach out interactions with other people. Grant writes:

“Every time we interact with other people at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?”

Three types of people, marked by the three choices people can make about this question and have different preferences for their desired mix of giving and taking:

  • Takers: like to get more than they give; self-promote, need to be better than others, make sure they get credit for their efforts, put their own interests ahead of others’ needs, self-focused
  • Givers: other-focused, may not think about costs at all, make connections for others, share credit, give help, acts in others’ interests
  • Matchers: try to preserve balance between giving and taking, when helping others, seek reciprocity, tit for tat, expect even exchanges of favors, expect fairness in exchanges

Most of us, in Grant’s view, fall in the matcher category—we give, but we do not give without expectation of receiving. 

Grant goes on to explain how givers are notably successful and questions the popularity of our thinking that we should be successful first and then give back.  He raises the possibility that those who give first will be more successful later.  And that does not mean forgoing ambitions—it simply means going after one’s goals in a different way. The most important point to be made about succeeding as a giver is that giving, in the way, Grant describes, has a ripple effect. Giving—not matching—produces win-win results, creating success for those around us. How do Givers accomplish that?  What do they do? Adam Grant describes 4 different kinds of interactions with other people that givers approach in a unique way: networking, collaborating, evaluating, and influencing. To make the point today, I’ll focus on the topic of networking.

Networking can give us access to knowledge, expertise, and influence. And depending upon how we approach our interactions with other people to build and sustain our networks, we show the signs and results of functioning as a giver, taker, or matcher. After all, haven’t we all been approached by people who we think are takers—connecting to us only because they think we can do something for them?  And our natural reaction is to close off contact, to protect ourselves and the members of our network from being exploited. Takers network to advance themselves, stepping over many bodies to reach a higher rung on the ladder.  Serving self, they seek to make a good impression with those in higher status and dismiss those they perceive to have no value to their climb. Ultimately, their reputation suffers because the matchers among us spread the word about their self-centered and self-serving ways. 

Remember, matchers like to see fairness and justice served and will spread the good word about givers and less kind truths about takers. Givers, by contrast, build networks by doing for others and by reconnecting with those they have not seen or talked to in some time.  They help with no intention of calling in a favor. They listen when others talk, they ask questions to learn more, and they make connections among those they know.  The benefits flow from givers to others, and in a way that many of us would call karma, good flows back to them without their ever intending that would be the result. And it is in this reconnection with those with whom we have lost touch that the greatest value comes—these long-lost ties help us gain new knowledge, new perspectives, new outlooks on life because they have moved along a different path than those with whom we spend the most time. 

The advice we receive from what Grant calls a “dormant” tie proves the most valuable because of its novelty.  And if that original tie were built on being helpful, that individual will trust our contact with them and common ground will be built again with speed. Here is where givers have an advantage in networks.  Takers have often burned the bridges to former members of their networks.  Matchers may have already traded value in ways that make it difficult to restore the connection, and they will feel that if they ask for help, it will be expected in return.

Only givers have built a pattern of generosity that people trust to be less about the giver and more about those to whom the giver gives. Adam Grant uses one spectacular giver as an example of how this works—Adam Rifkin—and concludes that a giver sees networks as a way to create value for everyone involved, not merely to advantage one’s self.

Grant’s book goes on to discuss the costs of giving and how to manage those costs with examples of givers who protected themselves from burnout, from being exploited by takers, and how givers can actually build success by influencing others away from taking activities to giving.   I obviously recommend his book but also am reminded of this saying by Mark Twain: “It is better to give than receive- especially advice. 

So I do have some advice to give, and I will also say to take, because this is advice I am also taking to heart as I seek to be true to the values and principles of service leadership. Here are actions I recommend we take:

  • 5 minute rule: “You should be willing to do something that will take you five minutes or less for anybody.”  Adam Rifkin
  • Anonymous rule:  “Whenever possible, give without attribution.”
  • Network rule: This week, reconnect with someone with whom you have not had recent contact—restore that tie, and see where the conversation goes.
  • Book rule:  based on an Arab proverb, “it is more generous to lend a book than to give a book, and the result is the same.” 

Today we celebrate exceptional women who have made this community better through the generous sharing of their talents, of their time, and of their resources.  We know that their stories inspire us.  More to the story. .  

We left the scene with the waitress who had just received five $100 dollar bills – one as payment for a meal and four under the napkin. Well, there were tables to clear, sugar bowls to fill, and people to serve, but the waitress made it through another day. That night when she got home from work and climbed into bed, she was thinking about the money and what the mysterious customer had written. How could the woman have known how much she and her husband needed it? With the baby due next month, it was going to be hard… She knew how worried her husband was, and as he lay sleeping next to her, she gave him a soft kiss and whispered soft and low, “Everything’s going to be all right. I love you, Bryan Anderson.”


Grant, Adam (2013).  Give and Take:  A Revolutionary Approach to Success, New York, NY:  Penguin Books, Ltd.


Walker, Clay (Sept. 29, 2009).  “Chain of Love” Lyrics.  Retrieved from: http://www.metrolyrics.com/chain-of-love-lyrics-clay-walker.html.