Why Leaders Must Give More Than They Take

UPDATED: October 6, 2023
PUBLISHED: March 27, 2019
Why Leaders Must Give More Than They Take

I’ll admit it: when I started my personal growth journey almost five decades ago, my motivations were selfish. I wanted to grow so I could be successful.

Maybe that’s why you’re reading this magazine right now. There are goals you want to accomplish and milestones you want to achieve, but you know you need to develop yourself in order to get there. I felt the same way. Growth was the key to reaching my goals.

But here is why I describe my experience with personal growth as a journey: Over time, the motivations changed for me. I found that, as I made progress, I increased my influence with people. But that influence wasn’t for my own benefit—it created opportunities for me to contribute to the development of others.

Related: 6 Powerful Personality Traits of Influencers

This progress led me not just to success, but to significance. In developing others, I found my life’s greatest joy and reward.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising to me that this shift propelled me to even greater success. But there are two sides to every coin, so let me describe both for you here.

Put Others First

As a young leader, I started out thinking that my vision came first. I believed that my most important responsibility was to get people to buy into me, where I was going, what I was doing, what I was asking. But everything changed for me when I realized people allowed me to lead only when they knew my motives were right—that I would put them ahead of my own interests.

People want to know that they matter to the person leading them. The people who work with you and for you don’t desire to be followers, or expendable cogs in some sort of machine you’re building. They want to be partners, and partners go the extra mile for one another. As a leader, when I went the extra mile for my people, they were happy to do the same for me. The return I received on my investment in others overwhelmed me with new feelings of significance.

Things in this world are temporary; people are what matter. Your career, your hobbies and other interests will die with you. People continue on. What you give to help others enables them to give to others. It’s a cycle that can continue long after you’re dead and gone.

Related: 3 Ways to Make Your Relationships the Best They Can Be

It’s often said in organizations that people are the most appreciable asset, yet many leaders don’t behave as if that were true. If you are a leader, the measure of success is not the number of people who serve you, but the number of people you serve. Putting people first is important, because your actions impact so many other people. Additionally, treating others well helps us navigate life better and puts us in a place where we can learn from others.

When people come first in your life, adding value to them becomes natural. You do it as a matter of lifestyle. You add value to people because you value people and you believe they have value.

But… here comes the important flip side to the coin I mentioned.

Don’t Let Others Control You

When my wife Margaret and I were newly married and I was starting my career as a pastor, we had very few resources. Basically, we were scraping to get by. During that time, we became friends with a couple that was financially well off. Each Friday night, Jack and Helen would take us to a fine restaurant and buy our meal. It was the highlight of my week, since Margaret and I could not afford to eat there. Over a two-year period, we received many wonderful benefits of this friendship, and we were very grateful.

After three years in that position, I got an offer to become the leader of a larger church. It was a tremendous opportunity with great advancement and potential. But when I announced that I would be leaving to take it, Jack was not pleased.

I’ll never forget his words: “John, how can you leave after all that I have done for you?”

It was in that moment that I realized Jack was starting to slowly own me. He was keeping score, and I had no idea!

It was a wakeup call. That was the day I made an important choice: I would always try to give more than I received in relationships. And I would never keep score.

Related: 4 Important Truths of Lasting Relationships

From that day forward, I never let one of my leaders pick up the check in a restaurant. I determined to be on the giving side of life whenever possible.

Obviously, I still receive from others. I am blessed beyond words by what others have done for me. But I don’t want to give away control of my life. I want to be able to value people with no strings attached. A giving life should create freedom for yourself and those you help.

As a leader, you must make sure no person owns you—and you do that by giving more than you take. You can figure out that calculus quickly: Just make a list of the key people in your life. Now think about each relationship and determine if you are mostly the giver, mostly the taker, or whether the relationship is even.

If you are primarily the taker, then you need to make adjustments. How do you do that? By making an effort to out-give the people in your life without keeping score.

You can do this not only with your family and friends, but even with your employer. Make an effort to give more work than your organization pays you for. Not only will the people you work for and with value you more, but you will be adding more value to them. And, if you have a new opportunity to move on to bigger and better things, you will be able to do so knowing that you have always given your best.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.