Pay It Forward Leadership

Pay it Forward Leadership

When it comes to great leadership, paying it forward is greater than a random act of kindness.  It’s about moving from something transactional to fueling the future relationally.  Consider some of the qualities a great leader possesses – a spirit of continuous learning, mentoring, empowering others, developing the leaders around them.  Great leaders understand the value of having a compelling vision, and helping others see their role in the fulfillment of that vision.  They gather around them the people who have the capacity to contribute value to the process leading to the desired results.  Great leaders are intentional, purposeful, they forecast direction, and they map out the potential to get there.

Leaders who pay it forward look for the opportunity to tap into hidden potential, to nurture undeveloped talent, and to influence misguided energies.  Great leaders are observers of people, of human potential, they learn about those around them so they can work with and through them.  

In a three-year study published in 2010, Catalyst.org reported:

”High-potentials who are paying it forward today recognize that others once took a risk on them and gave them their chance—and now it’s their turn. The men and women who are more likely to be developing others:

  • Have themselves received developmental support (59%) vs. those who have not received this type of support (47%).

  • Were sponsored (66%) as opposed to not receiving sponsorship (42%).

  • Are in senior executive/CEO level positions (64%) vs. those at non-managerial levels (30%).

  • Are more proactive when it comes to their own career advancement (63%) vs. those who are relatively inactive (42%) with regard to their own career advancement.”

The foundation of pay it forward leadership is built from a sense of gratitude with the understanding that the gift received cannot be paid back, it can only be paid forward.

Although the concept of “pay it forward” was popularized by the 2000 film of the same name, the idea has a firm foundation in history. Ben Franklin described it in a letter he wrote to Benjamin Webb in 1784, in which he wrote about his intention to help Webb by lending him some money. He did not want to be repaid directly, however. Instead, Franklin hoped that Webb would at some point meet an honest man in need of financial help and pass the money along to him.  

The leadership lesson in the letter is that Franklin had a heart to help, his generosity was within his capacity to give, and he encouraged the spirit in which it was given to continue.

Characteristics of pay it forward leaders:

  1. Developing others is an intentional act of leadership.  Some leaders refer to this as succession planning, some consider it building bench-strength, and great leaders see it as a natural extension of their responsibility as a leader. However you frame it, it is purposeful.

  2. Identifying an emerging leader or high potential talent requires being an observer of people.  Leaders learn about those around them, approaching the relationship with a natural curiosity – understanding where people are at in their career and where they want to be.

  3. Effective leaders are discerning with whom they invest their time and energy with.  Selecting individuals who are capable of receiving the gift of mentoring or development, and using the gift to do more good, to improve, or add more value.

  4. Great leaders continuously seek ways to improve their own leadership effectiveness.  By investing in themselves, leaders become more valuable and can add more value to others.  In this way, they set the example for others to follow.

  5. Great leaders want to see those around them be successful in their endeavors and pursuits.  They focus on their participation in supporting that journey, but they do not get attached to the outcome.

Pay it forward leadership is about the belief that people can be lifted into their better selves when stimulated and inspired to achieve extraordinary outcomes and develop their own leadership capacity.

Jill Poulton