Leadership Made Simple: Stay Grateful
Leadership is complex; the secret is utilizing strategies to simplify it. Successful leaders have the ability to streamline the numerous responsibilities and interacting dynamics that comprise leadership (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007). Streamlining empowers influential leaders to produce the clarity needed to move people forward as a unified force.
The power of simplicity is a time-tested principle. In his 1973 collection of essays, Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher stated, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction” (p. 22). The touch of genius to which Schumacher refers is found in leaders who understand the power of gratitude and staying grateful for the opportunity to positively affect the people they lead and the world in which they live.
Sansone and Sansone (2010) describe gratitude as a general state of thankfulness and the appreciation of what is meaningful to oneself. It is essential, however, to understand that being grateful and staying grateful are not the same. The former is a feeling; the latter is a choice. Being grateful is easy; staying grateful is hard.
Brené Brown has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, empathy, and gratitude. In her 2018 bestseller, Dare to Lead, she asserts that gratitude is one thing that all effective leaders have in common. In addition, she posits that influential leaders do not just have an attitude of gratitude; they also have a habit of practicing gratitude. Through this daily practice of gratitude, leaders create the mindset needed to stay grateful. Of the many ways to practice gratitude, Brown recommends taking time each day to observe the things we are thankful for, using gratitude cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude, and expressing gratitude to those we lead.
Brown’s research inspired me to begin practicing gratitude in my daily life. This inspiration has resulted in three strategies that help me stay grateful for the opportunity to positively impact those I lead.
Walks of gratitude
My gratitude practice begins with a ritual I engage in each day upon arriving on campus: my walk of gratitude. To explain my ritual, I have two options when walking from the parking lot to my office in our central administration building. Option one is shorter and quicker, while option two is longer and more time consuming. Option one includes a small outdoor entrance, concrete stairs, and a dreary view of grey walls and old bulletin boards on the way to my office. Option two consists of a majestic outdoor entrance complete with a vast staircase, a beautifully decorated lobby, plush-carpeted stairs, and an impressive view of the central administrative suite at the top of the stairs.
A few years ago, I began to choose option two on my daily walk from the parking lot to my office. This choice was based on Brown’s recommendation to observe the things we are grateful for. Option two allows me to focus on and appreciate the beauty of our campus and central administration building, changing my perception of being at work tobeing on campus. The change in my perception increases my gratitude at the beginning of each day. My altered perception and increased gratitude are supported by Godwin and Hershelman’s (2021) study that showed changing someone’s perception enhances their gratitude-related perceptual lens, thereby increasing their gratitude.
Simply said, my daily walk of gratitude instills a positive thought pattern in me at the start of each day. This positive thought pattern results in a grateful mindset that makes me a better leader throughout the day.
Thoughts of gratitude
It has been said that if you want to change your life, you must change your thoughts. My walk of gratitude initiates a positive thought pattern that changes not only my life but also the lives of those I lead. The positive thought pattern also lays the foundation for a grateful mindset. This grateful mindset creates more positive thoughts, which, in turn, strengthen my mindset. The dynamic of a grateful mindset being strengthened by the very thoughts it produces empower me to stay grateful throughout the day.
Best-selling author and leadership consultant Jon Gordon asserts, “We don’t burn out because of what we do; we burn out because we forget why we do what we do” (n.d.). Likewise, thoughts of gratitude help us remember why we do what we do, resulting in what Fehr et al. (2017) identify as persistent gratitude. As they define it, persistent gratitude isa strong tendency to choose gratefulness within a specific context. Moreover, we need cues to help establish the tendency of choosing gratefulness.
A gratitude board is a practical example of a cue that can help us remember why we do what we do. My gratitude board is on the wall directly to the left of my desk. I keep it filled with thank-you notes, personal messages, graduation announcements, and pictures students have given me over the years. So whenever frustration or impatience shows up during the day, a simple look to my left helps me to stay grateful by providing a powerful reminder of why I do what I do.
Words of gratitude
Although some things may be better left unsaid, gratitude is not one of them. Words of gratitude allow us to be more specific and personal than we can be with nonverbal expressions of gratitude. One of the more powerful aspects of speaking words of gratitude is the ripple effect it creates. Once a leader shares words of gratitude with those they lead, those they lead often begin to do the same. This ripple effect results in a powerful dynamic of gratitude expressed throughout a group. Fehr et al. refer to this type of gratitude as collective gratitude and describe it as “enduring gratitude that is shared by the members of an organization” (p. 364).
While gratitude may be expressed publically or in formal meetings, I have learned that words of gratitude spoken during informal conversations and casual encounters are often more impactful. Leaders must be intentional during these types of conversations and encounters. One practical example of this intentionality is to express gratitude for what others do and, more importantly, for who they are. For instance, my customary ending to a conversation is“I’m grateful for you.” Being grateful for who people are is more meaningful than just being grateful for what they do.
Leaders who practice gratitude stay grateful for the opportunities they have and for the people they lead. This gratefulness creates unity, resulting in stronger organizations that make a more significant impact on the world. Staying grateful is an individual and organizational mindset that should be practiced and enhanced throughout our careers.
Leadership is complex. Let gratitude be one of your strategies to simplify it.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead. Random House.
Fehr, R., Fulmer, A., Awtrey, E., & Miller, J. A. (2017). The grateful workplace: A multilevel model of gratitude in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 42(2), 361–381. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2014.0374
Godwin, J. L., & Hershelman, S. M. (2021). Utilizing self-leadership to enhance gratitude thought patterns. Administrative Sciences, 11(2), Article 40. https://doi.org/10.3390/admsci11020040
Gordon, J. [@JonGordon11]. (2022, October 30). We don’t get burned out because of what we do. We get burned out because we forget why we do it [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/jongordon11/status/1586887142541733888
Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: the benefits of appreciation. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 7(11), 18–22.
Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. Blond & Briggs.
Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298–318. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.04.002
Rick Haasl, EdD, is associate dean for the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and faculty director for the Rogers LEAD WT Program at West Texas A&M University. Haasl has served as a coach, instructor, and administrator at five different universities during his 35-year career in higher education.