Real Life Leading #9: "I am thankful for"...Gratitude as a Key to Leadership

Real Life Leading #9

“I Am Thankful For…”: Gratitude as a Key to Leadership

     Hey everyone! This week was Thanksgiving week here in the States, and so I thought it would be a great idea to talk about the importance of gratitude and how it affects our leadership. I want to do that in a couple of different ways here. First, I will look at it in a theory/application format; second, I want to give some examples of gratitude for various situations in my life and leadership.

Let’s start with the obvious: most people know that it’s polite to say things like “Thank you” or “I appreciate it” when someone helps us out. That’s basic, kindergarten-level stuff...and yet it also gets forgotten, especially once we move beyond kindergarten. Ask any teacher of middle or high school students, and they’ll tell you that all of those lessons from kindergarten and elementary school (think of the “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” posters that were in so many classrooms growing up) seem to have been forgotten, misplaced, or never truly grasped by many of their students. Basic gratitude, in many situations, seems to have fallen by the wayside.

And, unfortunately, this is also seen in many retail stores and shopping malls as people begin ramping up their holiday shopping. So, lesson number one here: remember to show gratitude, especially to people who may be getting much less than they deserve (cough, retail clerks and workers, cough).

Next, let’s look at the somewhat less obvious: gratitude is not just about the words we say, but about the way in which we say them. There is a great scene in an episode of the TV sitcom Friends where Joey says to Chandler, “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it.” In that episode, the joke is that Joey is becoming more effeminate, more like his female roommate, and that is supposedly shown by this particular comment. However, there is much truth to be found in that remark: often, when we see a lack of gratitude, it’s not just through lack of polite words; rather, it is through a general attitude or non-verbal cues. Those of us with siblings certainly remember moments from our childhood when our parents made us say thank you for something our sibling had done, and we would (with no conviction whatsoever) sulkily mumble a semi-coherent, “Thanks.” And that would often be followed up by the parent saying something along the lines of, “This time, say it and mean it.” The interesting thing here is, in order to mean it, our words didn’t change. But our whole countenance did: in order to mean it, our body position, our facial expression, our tone of voice, all of these things had to change in order for us to mean it when we expressed our thanks.

This knowledge that our whole countenance changes when we truly are grateful for something reveals to us an important lesson: when we express gratitude, it not only shows appreciation to the person or group being thanked, but it changes us as well. Don’t let the significance of that be lost on you: when you truly show gratitude, it affects you just as much as it does the other party. It makes us change physically (our face, our body position--head up, look them in the eyes, all the things adults try to teach their kids about posture), and it changes us emotionally: we actually feel more grateful when we truly express thanks.

Last lesson here: most people are able to see through a fake “Thank you” just as we are quick to pick up on a fake, or at least a less-than-heartfelt, apology. So when we are showing thanks, let us do so sincerely, let us not just say the words but let us feel them and show gratitude in our demeanor, our expression, and our whole attitude. Think of the difference between when someone, even a stranger, says, “Thank you so much,” while they look you in the eye and smile, compared to when someone, even a loved one, says an off-hand and quickly muttered, “Thanks,” as you hold the door open, carry away a dirty dish, or help them up from the couch after a holiday nap. What’s the difference? It’s certainly not that the words “So much” added on the end make the gratitude more heartfelt. It’s the attitude, the feeling, the weight behind the words that really gets the message across.

As leaders, we have to be aware of what we say, but more importantly we need to be aware of how we say it. We need to make sure that we are getting our message across in the way in which we intend it to be received, and a large part of that is non-verbal communication. In my world, I spent a significant amount of time interacting with females: I have a wife, two daughters, I teach high school students (male and female), and I coach girls soccer (varsity and JV, with a combined roster of 30+). In the years I have done this, I have seen many times when I have mistakenly hurt someone’s feelings through a careless word, but more often it occurs through not paying enough attention to the way in which I use my words. I am still learning how to do a better job of accurately expressing what it is that I’m trying to get across to them, and it will be a lifelong journey of learning to do that well. In the meantime, let me give a few things I’m thankful for before we wrap up here:

I’m thankful for my wife, who decided it was a good idea to marry me (even when I tried to convince her otherwise) and who encourages me in my career and in every area of life while also teaching me about humility, grace, and gratitude. She is my muse, my help-meet, and my warrior-beside.

I’m thankful for my daughters, who continue to teach me about parenting by giving me opportunities to grow as they grow and to learn as they learn. Just when I think I've gotten a handle on how to parent kids their ages, they have birthdays, and I get to start all over again. I’m thankful to get to have the privilege of being around such great kids.

I’m thankful for my mom, dad, and stepdad, who showed me that divorces don’t have to be as messy and painful as they often become. They also taught me that humility, patience, and understanding are necessary for blended families to work well.

I’m thankful for my in-laws (current and former) for showing love and generosity to my family, and for always being kind.

I’m thankful for my ex-wife and her husband (and their son), who willingly work with us to make our lives work, and without whose cooperation our four-parent, two-house world would be much more difficult and complicated.

I'm thankful for every teacher, coach, pastor, youth pastor, and college professor that took the time to teach and coach an arrogant, snarky, know-it-all Joel, in the hopes that one day I'd be less cocky and more humble. 

I’m thankful for you the reader, for giving me the chance to share what I’ve learned and try to help you use your leadership and influence to make your little pocket of the world a better place.

Call to Action: This week, go out of your way to show true humble gratitude to someone in your world that needs to know they’re appreciated.