7 Ways Thankfulness Makes You a Stronger Leader

by Jesse Lahey on November 19, 2015

Image of four businesswomen interacting at meeting

Several years ago, I was helping to plan workforce communications for a Fortune 500 financial services company. Early in the project, I met a leadership consultant from another firm that was serving the same client. Her research revealed amazing insights about leadership effectiveness, and I sent her a handwritten thank-you note expressing genuine gratitude for teaching me some powerful new concepts.

Fast-forward several months [cue the minor-key music] … a problem developed between her firm and the client. At first it was unclear what the problem was, and as she tried to get clarity, she came across a potential clue that (incorrectly) suggested I might be sabotaging their relationship. Fortunately, her immediate response was to recognize that dirty tricks aren’t part of my character.

She called to ask me about the situation, we cleared the air between us, and she later proceeded to figure out the true source of the problem. She mentioned that my heart-felt thank-you note was a key factor in why she gave me the benefit of the doubt. When a guy takes the time to write a thoughtful note, and humbles himself by detailing specific things he appreciates about you, you are more likely to assume his intentions are good. She had caught a glimpse of my true heart, which caused her to trust me.

Expressing gratitude can increase the level of trust people have for you — a key ingredient to effective leadership. But that’s just one reason why thankfulness makes you a stronger leader.

Why Most Leaders Suck at Thankfulness

The biggest reason most of us don’t express gratitude often or well is a leader’s natural focus on future work.

As leaders, our focus tends to stay on our vision for the future, the next big thing, and upcoming action steps. This focus is a key part of what makes us effective. However, we can be too task-oriented and too future-focused. We forget to pause, reflect on the present moment, celebrate progress, and recognize who helped us get where we are. That’s not always good for us personally, and it’s certainly not optimal for the people we lead.

Leadership Benefits of Gratitude

According to Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert Emmons, Ph.D., science shows that gratitude improves your mental and physical health. In addition, the exercise of thinking about and expressing thanks brings several benefits that makes you a stronger leader.

Here are seven reasons thankfulness can boost your leadership effectiveness:

  • Increases stress-resistance. People who practice gratitude consistently tend to have a stronger immune system, healthier blood pressure, more refreshing sleep, and greater ability to handle stress.
  • Increases focus on the present moment. Yes, it’s important for leaders to be mindful of the future. But as Star Wars’ Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn told a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Not at the expense of the moment.” Present mindfulness is key to strategic thinking, innovative thinking, and avoiding burnout.
  • Increases employee engagement. According to The Gallup Organization, the #1 reason people leave their jobs is they don’t feel appreciated. Sixty-five percent of Americans received no recognition in the workplace last year. Join the minority of extraordinary leaders!
  • Maintains balance between people and results. Many leaders tend to be overly focused on tasks, achievements, or future goals. Reflecting on how other people help you deliver results gives a more effective focus that’s balanced between results and relationships.
  • Leads to strengths-based feedback. When you don’t focus on individuals’ strengths, the odds of an employee being engaged are a dismal 1 in 11 (9%). But when you focus on the strengths of employees, the odds soar to almost 3 in 4 (73%). Exercising gratitude naturally causes you to think about a person’s strengths and provide feedback to that person based on those strengths.
  • Cultivates leadership humility. Practicing gratitude makes you recognize how much other people have helped you achieve success. It’s a great way to develop confident humility, which makes you a stronger leader.
  • Inspires gratitude (and all its personal benefits) among team members. When you practice genuine thankfulness, the mirror-neuron phenomenon triggers your team to have similarly grateful thoughts and feelings. As a result, people will feel less envy and resentment (which are the opposite of gratitude), and they too will reap the benefits of thankfulness listed above.

Thankfulness changes things: in yourself, in your team, and in your impact. Consider setting a personal goal for the coming year — not just at Thanksgiving — to practice gratitude more consistently.

For more about the power of gratitude, listen to Engaging Leader podcast episode 124: THX! How Practicing Gratitude Makes You a More Effective Leader. Grateful thanks to Cody Gascho and Andy Stanley for providing many of these ideas.

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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