When most people think of leadership, they think of character traits like confident, strong, honest, passionate, persuasive. One trait that doesn’t often make the list is gratitude. When you hear “gratitude,” it doesn’t exactly sound all that leader-like. Gratitude? I mean, yeah, it’s great, but not really crucial for a leader. Why gratitude? And specifically, why would it make the list in a list of leadership tools?

The Power of Gratitude

A growing body of research has uncovered the extraordinary impact of gratitude in every area of life.

Two researchers from the University of California, Davis published their research in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 56-69). In an article titled, “Gratitude as a Human Strength: Appraising the Evidence” Drs. Crumpler and Emmons amassed evidence from a variety of sources.

Here are some of their salient findings:

  • Virtually all major religions advance gratitude as a virtue.
  • Gratitude has been found to produce personal enhancement in psychological theory and research.
  • Empirical studies have connected gratitude with overall well being and accomplishing one’s goals.

Their conclusion was simple:

“Gratitude… is a source of human strength in enhancing one’s personal and relational well-being.”

Michael McCullough and Jo-Ann Tsang theorized that gratitude is the parent of the virtues in their essay published in The Psychology of Gratitude. Gratitude not only elicits behavior in the person who is expressing it, but it also elicits response in the person who is receiving it.

Another study on gratitude came from the Department of Psychology at Northeastern University. In their Psychological Science article, authors Bartlett and DeSteno produced study data. Their conclusions were that gratitude drives helping behavior, increases assistance provided to strangers, and builds relationships. Not bad for a simple “emotion.”

Other studies suggest that gratitude is more powerful than most people realize. It’s not just being thankful. In 2001, the Psychological Bulletin produced a groundbreaking article, “Is gratitude a moral affect?” In it, the authors asserted that gratitude “is a moral barometer” and “a moral motive.” In other words, when humans express gratitude, they are also discovering what moral behavior is and how to enact it. Gratitude, then, expresses itself in virtues.

The same findings were discovered in a study by Emmons and McCullough. After three studies with a variety of groups, they discovered that “The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being.” In their study, they concluded with typical research detachment: “Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

The fact is, gratitude isn’t just an emotion that we can somehow turn on or off. It’s an entire approach to life that requires intentionality or thoroughgoing internal change.

Scientific research tells us that gratitude can change our lives and produce well being.

But experience should suggest the same thing. Is it any coincidence that Thanksgiving is correlated with higher levels of happiness? Some of us may spew out a bah-humbug on Black Friday, but not on Thanksgiving!

The scholarly research has spilled over into popular articles. One Forbes author wrote, “Feeling grateful can make you more successful,” and traced out the reasons why.

Inc.’s Geoffrey James wrote “If you’re not exercising this emotional muscle, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. I’m utterly convinced that the key to lifelong success is the regular exercise of a single emotional muscle: gratitude.” Research from the Harvard Business Review draws the same conclusions: appreciation matters.

To be grateful is to be emotionally healthy.

With this mountain of research and overwhelming conclusion, there are some obvious takeaways for leadership.

Gratitude in Leadership

Since gratitude is such a powerful behavior, it can revolutionize one’s leadership. Gratitude demands a response, and that response is invariably positive.

A leader who is grateful towards his or her employees gains their respect.

The simple act of gratitude produces other behaviors. When a leader takes time to intentionally thank her employees, she gains their respect. Because gratitude is a virtue, we tend to respect those who exemplify it.

A leader who thanks his employees gains their trust.

Gratitude can’t be faked, and that’s one of the reasons why it is one of the emotions that elicits most trust.

Think for a minute about a work relationship where a boss tells his employee, “I’m really thankful for the work that you put into that report. It was the most detailed report I’ve seen this month, and it gave me the perfect data to present to our client.”

The employee who received that thanks isn’t thinking, “Gee, I wonder if my boss is going to fire me now.” Instead, she’s thinking, “I trust him.”

Gratitude creates trust, which can serve to benefit any workplace.

A leader who thanks his employees gains their effort.

Gratitude also produces greater effort in those who sense it. Someone says, “Thanks, that was awesome! You totally rocked that deadline!”

That kind of grateful language is encouraging, because it’s a reward for effort. When we’re rewarded for our effort in such a way, we want to give even more effort.

A leader who thanks his employees gains their appreciation.

All the gratitude research that I’ve read have pointed to gratitude as one of the pinnacles of virtue. We appreciate virtue when we see it i others. Thus, when you express gratitude towards other people, your behavior will gain appreciation.

A leader who expresses gratitude prevents other undesirable emotions.

I like what Carey Nieuwhof wrote about gratitude in his article, “Grateful Leaders Make the Best Leaders.”

Grateful people are rarely angry. And angry people are rarely grateful.

His point is this: “Gratitude neutralizes your anger and jealousy.” I would go further, and suggest that gratitude can abolish some of the malices associated with leaders — micromanagement, authoritarianism, rudeness, etc.

How to Exercise Gratitude

It all sounds too good be true. “Just be grateful and I can change everything!”

Yeah, it does sound a little like a used-car salesman.

Is it really this easy? No. Not really. It’s virtually impossible for a human to consistently and invariably live out absolute virtue. Anyone who’s tried “being good” knows that there will be as many failures as there are successes.

Gratitude is no different. It requires persistent attention and internal change to exercise gratitude.

Gratitude has an objective.

To truly be grateful, your gratitude has to have an ultimate objective. Biblical writers are explicit about the object of this gratitude:

  • “Oh give thanks to the Lord” (Psalm 105:1)
  • “Thanks be to God” (2 Corinthians 9:15)

It’s hard to be grateful to nothing, or to have gratitude in a vacuum. Gratitude, by its very nature, has an objective.

Gratitude is genuine.

You can’t fake thankfulness. You may be able to pretend grateful the first few times, but unless you’re deeply and truly thankful, it’s not going to work.

The good news is, by intentionally exercising gratitude on a daily basis, we can build up our gratitude muscle, and cultivate genuine gratitude.

Gratitude is frequent.

The big drawback to Thanksgiving is that it only comes once a year. It’s not that I want a huge turkey dinner more often. Once a year is probably okay. What I miss is the reminder to be grateful.

A true level of gratitude expresses that gratitude frequently. If you are trying to build your own gratitude, you’ll have to express it not annually, not monthly, not even weekly. Gratitude is a daily effort.

If you think about it, there are a lot of things to be grateful for. But that’s the thing; you have to think about it — frequently.

Gratitude is specific.

Gratitude is meaningless unless it’s specific. Let’s say you’re walking by your employee’s desk, and you say “Hey, thanks! Thanks so much!”

He’s thinking, “Thanks for what?!”

You have to be thankful for something. Gratitude, like I mentioned above, has an ultimate objective, but it also has an immediate cause. Here are some examples of specific gratitude.

“I’m really thankful for the way you handled that tense situation in the board meeting. You spoke softly, in a controlled way, but you also showed them why their strategy was misguided. Thanks for doing that.”

“By the way, thank you for that email last night. I know you stayed up late to write that, and it was exactly the information that I needed for my phone call with the investors. Thank you for your hard work, and the detailed information.”

Conclusion

People love to discuss the traits of leaders, as if we could somehow codify the attributes of leadership in list form. Every list is different.

Somehow, gratitude doesn’t hit that list very often. Maybe it’s time to change that.

Try a little bit of gratitude in your leadership. See what happens. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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