The Unleadership Movement: Paying it forward – giving without expecting to receive.

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The Unleadership Movement is a growing collaboration of practitioners and scholars from public, private and voluntary sectors who seek to reflect upon leaderly practices that have been illuminated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Its mission is to establish how this learning can be taken forward by participants to make a leaderly impact in their organisations and communities. In this month’s blog we focus on the practice of paying it forward. We’ve described this as a spontaneous proactive gesture; the best contribution someone can make to others without anticipation of any personal benefit. It is made in the spirit of compassion, generosity and optimism.

In many cases unleaders have described the feeling of being compelled to help out; be that printing 3D masks, cooking and delivering food to those in need or walking 100 laps of the garden to raise money for the NHS. When unleading, little attention is paid to the quantity and magnitude of these gestures; it is a matter of doing whatever is possible, with little regard for skills and resources as the primary factor in deciding to act. This stands in contrast with how leadership is discussed in mainstream rhetoric – where the leader is expected to have developed, and to exhibit a range of skills from planning and delivery to communication and persuasion, in order to deliver grand plans and successful outcomes.

However, when doing things for others, whilst having the ‘right’ skills and resources may not be crucial, intention is key. These gestures are made with a social motivation but without an anticipated personal benefit. Aimed at a greater good than the individual, unleadership disrupts the traditional gift and counter-gift rules of exchanging. How would our leaderly practices in our own organisations be transformed if we offered an act of kindness without expecting a personal benefit? The ethos of paying it forward and small acts of kindness is that taken together they create a social benefit, and in that sense, there can be an expectation of the ‘community’ getting something in return instead. In a series of collaborative workshops, we discussed small acts of kindness and paying it forward. We heard about so many stories of kindness received from unexpected places both in our workplaces and our communities surrounding the sharing of food, offers of friendship, and people giving time to others, perhaps just saying thank you, good morning or hello.

One of the most memorable stories shared was about how an individual had given the time to post team members a pink jiffy bag full of unexpected gifts such as sweet treats on regular occasions. This sparked both excitement and anticipation but also a sense of appreciation, feeling noticed and cared about.

One of our challenges through the discussion was to consider how we can continue to bring these acts into the workplace and what we could do to continue to allow these practices to thrive and develop. We used the metaphor of the rainforest to consider how we could build an ecosystem of kindness.

We discussed that kindness is particular to an individual, and that offering kindness is perhaps about understanding who another person is, or what they might need or appreciate. The idea of time was also a recurring theme, both offering kindness in a timely fashion at the right time and giving time to others. Seeing this as giving time offered a different perspective on the way we can notice and take action. There was a real sense of optimism that we could “unshape organisations” and find spaces for kindness, even in the most bureaucratic or hierarchical organisations. We felt that there was room to invite the human spirit into our working worlds, in all its uniqueness and generosity.

There were some inspirational pledges at the end of the session where our collaborators showed how they wanted to continue to “rock the boat with kindness”:

“noticing sameness and difference”

“to do and be what sparks joy”

“appreciate the star in everyone”

“checking in with people”

Inspiring thoughts. We’ll leave you with the words of Benjamin Franklin outlining the offer of his loan to Benjamin Webb and his request to repay the loan by lending the sum to another man. “I am not rich enough to afford much in good works and so am obliged to be cunning and make the most of little”. How can we make the most of small acts of kindness so that we can “pay it forward’ in generosity to our workplaces and our communities? How will this allow the human spirit into our working lives for greater social good?

You are all warmly invited to join our movement and contribute to the conversation! Join us next month for some thoughts on living with the unknown – how can we embrace imperfection in our leaderly practices?

Carol Jarvis, Hugo Gaggiotti, Selen Kars-Unluoglu  & Kay Galpin

LinkedIn: The Unleadership Movement

Twitter: @unleadership_

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