The Key to Leadership Success: Give and You Shall Receive


President John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what can you can do for your country.”

What makes this phrase so compelling is that it draws from one of the simplest rules of human behavior:

In order to get something, we must first learn to give.

Understanding Reciprocity

President Kennedy was using a powerful form of persuasion called reciprocity. The theory behind reciprocity is that once I do something for you, you’ll feel obligated to repay the favor. In this case, he was saying that once you make the decision to do something for your country, your generosity will enable your country to do something for you.

Reap What You Sow

The idea of give and take is something we learn very early. If we say thank you as children, we are rewarded with a smile and a pat on the head. If we show kindness to another person, they will show kindness toward us.

We reap what we sow, according to the Bible.

While Christians have clung to this standard of behavior for centuries, this potent form of persuasion is not something found only in churches.

The drive toward fairness is the foundation of civilization. It is so strong that it drives our social interactions, business dealings, and relationships. We feel obliged to repay others in kind for what they have given to us.

No Strings Attached

Successful leaders understand that the key to success is learning how to give if they hope to receive. The act of giving can be as small as a word of appreciation or a listening ear. It can also be something as large as concessions, gifts, or favors.

The motive behind reciprocity is the innate desire to give and share; the motive behind bribery is greed. One is ethical—the other is not. While the boundaries between the two can become blurred at times, the motivation for each approach is entirely different.

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Igor’s Story

One of the subjects of my investigations was a guy named Igor, a trained Russian Intelligence officer who was interested in acquiring classified information on nanotechnology. Igor was a disheveled and slightly bumbling kind of guy who looked and acted like Lt. Columbo.

The engineer in contact with Igor did not believe that Igor was really a spy and wasn’t interested in either helping me out or developing a relationship with the FBI.

I needed to find a way to crack the engineer’s tough exterior shell so I did some research and discovered that he and his company were involved in several joint ventures with Russian companies.

Through my contacts, I learned that several of the Russians—who were legitimate business people—were also in negotiation with a couple of the engineer’s American competitors.

I called the engineer and gave him a heads up. He was appreciative and then asked if I could confirm the names of the Russians who were interested in his competitor’s project. It was public source information—I just had better access to more information than he did—and so I gave it to him.

How Reciprocity Works

I needed to learn how to give if I wanted to receive something of value in return. If the engineer had taken the information I gave him and not reciprocated by giving me information about Igor’s interests, I would have been disappointed, but not crushed.

In this case, I would have explored other ways to get the details I needed, but the engineer did reciprocate and became one of the best sources in my investigation of Igor.

For reciprocity to be noticed by others, your “gift” should include the following:

  • Significance – it may be a smile, a free sample product, a word of advice, or a concession but it must be perceived as having value for the other person.
  • Unexpected – the way you give your gift is important. My phone call to the engineer with the names of Russian companies came out of the blue. His reaction was that of surprise, quickly followed by gratitude, that I would remember him.
  • Personal – whether it’s smile or an expensive present, your gift is most effective if the receiver knows that it is meant just for them.

Reciprocity is a powerful tool and is useful insight for anyone looking to be more persuasive. If we seek out ways we can give our help to colleagues, they will be obligated to support us in the future. The next time you hear “much obliged” to acknowledge indebtedness, you’ll know where it came from.

Why do you think reciprocity is so important to society? What have you needed to learn about giving in order to receive? How have you seen reciprocity exploited?


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LaRae Quy is former FBI Agent and Founder at Your Best Adventure
She helps clients explore the unknown and discover the hidden truth in self & others
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