The power of gratitude is evident in all aspects of our lives. Maintaining a positive perspective on the things that happen around us goes a long way to being able to manage them and move forward. It can be easy to let the challenges that come up wear us down. Sometimes life can feel unbearable or there’s a little voice inside telling you to focus on all the things that haven’t gone your way. If we can cultivate our ability to focus on gratitude for all the things that are positive, we can better tame that little voice.
“Studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people are much more engaged with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and specialness.” −Neil Burton, M.D
Much has been written about developing a spirit of gratitude, but I would like to focus on the role of a leader and why I think this is a critical skill for the leader to nurture.
Personal Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude is available for us all, but many of us underutilize it. Modern psychology and neuroscience have begun to show results that support what was long understood from philosophy and spiritual perspectives. Here are just a few of the general benefits that you get from building a practice of gratitude into your life.
- Optimism – In a study conducted by Robert Emmons, PhD from UC Davis and Dr. McCullough from University of Miami in 2003, after only 10 weeks, people who focused on expressing gratitude showed significantly more optimism in multiple areas of their lives.
- Relationships – Gratitude contributes to building stronger interpersonal relationships. Building a spirit of gratitude strengthens current relationships and allows new relationships to be built more easily. In addition, a spirit of gratitude makes it easier to forgive when something does not go well. (DeShea, 2003)
- Self-Control – A study by DeStano et al. conducted in 2014 showed that self-control increased when participants chose gratitude over other approaches. The ability to make better choices and exhibit better self-control can be influenced by our level of gratitude.
Even with a preponderance of science starting to confirm what makes sense, many people still feel like this is soft and do not take advantage of the impact that gratitude could have in their lives.
The Leader’s Role
As a leader, we take on a role beyond ourselves. We need to set the stage for the success of those around us. A wonderful model of what behaviors a leader uses to create results is found in The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership from Kouzes and Posner. It identifies that better leaders do each of the following with more frequency than their peers:
- Model the Way
- Inspire a Shared Vision
- Challenge the Process
- Enable Others to Act
- Encourage the Heart
Each of these practices deals with our relationships with others. A simple scan of the practices and the impacts of a spirit of gratitude show the immense impact gratitude can have on your leadership.
Encourage the Heart – In a later study conducted by Emmons, he had participants write down five things they were grateful for each day. One of the findings from the study was that the participants reported that they offered more positive feedback and support to others they interacted with.
Enable Others to Act – People grow when they know you are paying attention. Our gratitude is a key way in which we show that we believe in them and we notice the work they are doing.
Challenge the Process – As we ask people to work to make things better, there will necessarily be things that do not work perfectly the first time. We need to be able to thank people for the experiments that work. Just as importantly, we need to support them when experiments do not work, but we learn from the experience. Our ability to live from a place of gratitude as a leader, allows our people to work without fear. Our gratitude along the way, let’s people know that we care and that we want them to try.
Inspire a Shared Vision – It is difficult to inspire when I am not in a positive spirit and gratitude can help me get there. To excite people about the future, we need to invite them toward the possible. A spirit of gratitude makes us more open and agreeable, it allows us to move past the challenges and lift our eyes to what can be.
Model the Way – If gratitude helps people to build stronger connections and relationships, you need to be the model for what is possible among your team. Your team is looking to you. If you are focused on what is wrong and neglect to have gratitude and appreciation, it will impact your relationships with your team, and likely have a domino effect on how strong they can build their relationships as well.
The Role of Gratitude in Your Personal Resilience
One other aspect of gratitude that cannot be underestimated, is the effect that gratitude has on our own ability to be resilient. We share with people that leadership development is not a workshop. True leadership development is a multi-year, truly a multi-decade journey. For a journey of this length, it is critical that you can refresh yourself along the way.
Other scientific findings show that grateful people sleep better, have improved physical and mental health. Other studies show that people who are grateful live happier lives as well.
Developing your practice of gratitude is both a low-cost and high-impact way to provide the long-lasting battery power for your leadership journey. Making gratitude a habit is important for the challenges that will undoubtedly crop up.