How Gratitude Can Make You a Better Leader

How Gratitude Can Make You a Better Leader Cliches around gratitude abound, especially at this time of year when the feeling is almost expected on cue. Fortunately, significant research around gratitude exists too, helping us understand what it is and what it’s not, and even how it can help you become a stronger leader.

The data show that grateful people are not free of negative emotions, but that gratitude can magnify positive feelings, grow your sense of empowerment and resiliency and increase your willingness to acknowledge the contributions of others. That makes this the perfect time to consider the many ways gratitude can help you become a stronger leader and continue to advance your goals throughout the year. Here are a few to get you started.

Gratitude and motivation

Professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and founding editor of The Journal of Positive Psychology, Robert Emmons, Ph.D., has found that grateful people can acknowledge the contributions of others without overlooking their own. Grateful people “recognize their own feats and abilities while also feeling gratitude toward the people . . . who helped them along the way,” Emmons says. That is an especially helpful distinction both for leaders supported by highly valued team members and for women who sometimes discount the impact of their actions and talents on their own success.

Gratitude and resilience

Founding and growing a business or building a career in a competitive organization requires tremendous persistence and mental fortitude. One of the most effective ways to gear up for inevitable challenges and setbacks is by cultivating a sense of gratitude. Gratitude is the single best predictor of personal resilience and well-being, according to research by Columbia University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman published in Scientific American. Developing the capacity to identify progress is a fundamental skill we can add to our toolkit to thrive in difficult times.

Gratitude and leadership

A proven key to success is the ability to see setbacks and failures as helpful information and not the end of the road. Effective leaders are able to maintain a sense of realistic optimism, even in the face of significant obstacles, that helps them stay the course and buoy others to keep on keeping on. But gratitude does not require a relentless emphasis on thinking positively or ignoring suffering, struggle and negative events. Instead, gratitude helps generate a perspective that enables you to rally your internal resources, and the support of employees and coworkers, to tackle challenges head on.

Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, also discovered that positive emotions open our awareness and increase the expanse of our peripheral vision so we can literally see more possibilities and more interconnections, something every business leader needs.

Gratitude and health

In addition to the mental focus, bandwidth and emotional intelligence required to run a business or lead in one, you need sheer physical stamina and endurance and gratitude helps there as well. Emmons has found that gratitude helps boost immune function, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, motivate people to exercise more, lessen annoyance around aches and pains and decrease stress. With the energy and focus to invest long hours in meeting your goals, and a steadying presence that breeds confidence from investors, customers and team members, you are likely to be a far more effective leader.

Getting started

With so many ways to explore a personal practice of cultivating and sharing gratitude, you will need to consider those that work best for you. Several to ponder include:

  • Make time for gratitude by making it part of your routine. Some people think of three things they felt grateful for that day as they head to bed. Others start the day with a gratitude list. Linking the practice to something you already do will prompt you to do it.
  • The more specific you get, the more powerful your feelings of gratitude will be. Rather than being grateful for “family” or “colleagues,” you might specify feeling grateful that your spouse made dinner last night; a team member pitched in when someone called out sick; or that your presentation to a new client went smoothly.
  • Think small and celebrate wins along the way. If your keys are exactly where they should be as you rush out the door, acknowledge and feel grateful for that. If you receive a re-order from a customer, go ahead and celebrate. If you only celebrate the huge wins and big accomplishments, you will miss many opportunities to feel grateful along the way.
  • Share genuine compliments with your team. Cultivating gratitude enables you to better recognize and acknowledge the accomplishments of others, something that research from the University of Pennsylvania shows can help employees be more successful. Just like you strive for specificity in what you feel grateful for, be specific and intentional in pointing out to employees exactly what they did that you appreciated.

The more the data on gratitude expands, the more its practice has become synonymous with top-performing individuals and organizations. Consider making the start of the holiday season the prompt you needed to establish a solid gratitude practice heading into the new year. Your business will likely thank you for it.