‘Tis the season of giving thanks: Why gratitude is important in leadership

Exploring the benefits of intentionally expressing gratitude and tools to help you do so.

Here's an example of a gratitude wall in a MSU Extension office on campus.
Here's an example of a gratitude wall in a MSU Extension office on campus.

As November begins and holiday seasons of giving approach, it’s timely to talk about gratitude. When it comes to Thanksgiving, your first thought probably isn’t “What a great time to talk about leadership.” The team of youth leadership and civic engagement educators at Michigan State University Extension would advocate that any time is a good time to talk to the young people in your life about leadership. Here’s the theme for your November leadership chat: gratitude.

According to “Predicting Job Satisfaction: Contributions of Individual Gratitude and Institutionalized Gratitude” published in Scientific Research, gratitude is defined as “the active and conscious practice of giving thanks.” Practicing gratitude and appreciation is one characteristic of a good leader. Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan has developed a list of three approaches to being a positive leader, and the very first item is “expressing gratitude.” Other scholars have also found that regular, genuine declarations of gratitude have pronounced effects on individuals and groups. These exercises in gratitude can help leaders recognize value they might not have noticed otherwise, while helping their team flourish when they might have otherwise been unnoticed.

Bonus: Being gracious helps in your personal life too, even when you think you may not be in a “leadership position!” Christiane Northrup, an internationally recognized author and speaker, said on practicing gratitude, “Feeling grateful or appreciative of someone or something in your life, actually attracts more of the things that you appreciate and value in your life.” Similar to the saying, “What goes around comes around,” Northrup’s comment champions the idea that when you recognize the positive value of something in your life, it’s likely that more of that thing will come your way. Because appreciation and thankfulness often fosters positive feelings, and positive feelings contribute to individual well-being, it can be deducted that gratitude has a positive influence on well-being. Additionally, research in “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation” has linked gratitude to well-being in youth. In one study that compared the impacts of experiencing gratitude, a hassle, or nothing, the exercises in gratitude were most effective in enhancing youth well-being.

As leaders, gratitude gives us perspective. Sometimes it can be very easy to get bogged down with all the things on your to-do list, things that didn’t go as planned, partners that aren’t working well together or even things at home (or not related to the team) that have to take precedent. Taking time for reflective moments of gratitude can help you maintain perspective as you move through challenging situations. Expressing gratitude to your team, peers or colleagues can also help you build connections and enhance relationships. People in our lives often contribute to our day-to-day activities in a variety of meaningful yet unrecognized ways. Telling your friend you appreciate their smiling face when you walk into a room or thanking a co-leader for always being on time are two examples of small things that make your life easier or better, and recognizing them can make the day of the person you share your gratitude with.

Here are some other examples of meaningful approaches to building a habit of gratitude into your life:

  • Gratitude letter: Write a note to let someone know you are thankful for them and a specific action they carry out.
  • Gratitude list: Throughout your day or week as you reflect on things you’re grateful for, you can make a list and post it on the wall. When you’re feeling defeated or overwhelmed, you can look at the list to regain your perspective for the day.
  • Gratitude journal: Similarly to a gratitude list, this is a piece of reflective writing that can be completed at the end of the day to note parts or aspects of your day for which you are particularly grateful. For inspiration, check out this awesome YouTube video of students discovering the power of gratitude from Oak Ridge Elementary School in California.
  • Gratitude jar: Place one empty jar on your desk, or wherever you spend the majority of your day, and another jar filled with similar items, such as marbles, pebbles, coins, puff balls, etc. As you experience gratitude throughout the day, move the items from their home jar to the empty jar. At the end of the day, the receiving jar can be a great visual for how much gratitude you felt during your day.
  • Gratitude partner: Come to an agreement with someone who you feel physically and emotionally safe around to regularly share things you each are grateful towards. Like going to the gym, sometimes having a partner with a shared experience can help you hold yourself more accountable.
  • Grateful contemplation: Set aside time each day for meditative or reflective thoughts about your appreciation towards things in your life.
  • Gratitude visit: Take time to go to a person whom you are thankful for and tell them in person.

Gratitude wall

Dr. Colin A. Mayer's orthodontics office in Hillsdale, Michigan, also instituted a gratitude wall. Their staff commented, “Patients love this!”

Tip: On some particularly rough days (I call them “Murphy’s Law days”) where nothing seems to be going right, it can be challenging to come up with a list of things you are grateful for. Make sure you set a regular goal for yourself and adhere to that goal. An example may be, “I will write at least three things on my gratitude list each day,” and the tough days will be the most important to adhere to your goal. Author Sark wrote a prayer in her book “Prosperity Pie.” It reads, “May you unfold willingly. May you be truly nourished. May peace be in your every step. May gratitude fill you. May you reach others with your radiant heart.”

Expressing gratitude isn’t just for November, it’s something we should all be more intentional about doing throughout the year to be the best leaders and human beings we can be! 

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