Three Ways that Gratitude Will Make You a Better Leader

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! 2 Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

Psalm 100:1-5

The benefits of gratitude are well-documented. This Newsweek article highlights that grateful people are healthier and sleep better. They are also more hopeful, more empathetic, more resilient, more helpful and have greater self-esteem. Just 15 minutes a day spent giving thanks can change your life.

Besides these benefits, gratitude will make you a better leader. Here’s how.

Gratitude reminds you that it’s not about you

Whether you work for a church, nonprofit or mission-based organization, it’s not about you. If you’re focused on what you can get out of it, you’ve missed the point. On the other hand, if your personal mission is aligned with your organization’s purpose, then you realize that the work you do is about something much greater than yourself.

When you’re grateful, you’re more likely to think about the good things that are happening because of the work you do. It’s not all because of you, but you are part of something that is making a difference in the world.

The mission of The United Methodist Church, of which I’m a part, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This outward focus is all about loving God and loving neighbor, especially those most in need. As I have grown in my Christian walk, I find that I feel most blessed when I see something good happening in someone else’s life. When I have had a part in that, I’m filled with gratitude. It’s not about us, but about the God we serve and the people we serve.

Gratitude reminds you that you can’t do it alone

None of us can do it alone. You work together with others to achieve greater things than you can do on your own. Whether a family, church or organization of any size, relationships matter. Giving thanks for those relationships will make you a better friend, spouse, sibling, child, co-worker and leader.

My daily prayer time includes a litany of prayers for immediate and extended family, the sick, the grieving, the Pecometh staff, our Bishop and cabinet, colleagues in ministry, my pastor and the staff of a ministry in which I volunteer. I pray for each of these persons by name.

When you pray for other people you think more kindly of them. It’s also a good time to express your gratitude for them. Instead of thinking about what they haven’t done for you, think of how knowing them, living with them, working with them makes your life better.

Gratitude helps you keep your priorities in order

When you are grateful you are less self-centered and are better able to discern what matters most. Gratitude can give you the resolve to focus on those things, even as you feel pressure from all aspects of your life.

This can mean spending time with a friend or family member even when work demands are relentless. It can mean helping a person in need even when you don’t feel like it. It can mean helping a colleague or staff member meet their goals even when you haven’t met yours. It sometimes means taking time for yourself so you can better serve others.

Why does all this matter?

Because people will follow a leader who is clearly aligned with their mission and who appreciates the work they do. They will work for a leader who is not about himself or herself, but who knows that their effort is as important as the leader’s. Gratitude helps you do that.

Questions for reflection:

What improvement in someone else’s life makes you grateful?

Whose effort has really made a difference in your life?

What really matters in your life? How are you grateful for this?

A Leadership Lesson from Saturday Night Live

If you look at it objectively, it’s a miracle that Saturday Night Live even produced its first episode, let alone its first season. Instead, it became one of the longest running and most successful TV shows in history.

The original cast and writers were a collection of egotistic, competitive, drug-abusing, promiscuous young adults who all had tremendous talent. Writers and actors had to pitch their sketches. If a sketch was chosen for the show it meant someone else’s sketch wouldn’t make it.

So how did they do it?

Credit the leadership of the show’s creator and producer, Lorne Michaels.

If you follow this blog, you will see a lot about leadership through self-differentiation. This is a family systems concept from Edwin Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Friedman’s definition is:

“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this.  If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow.  There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along.

The emphasis on a leader’s self-differentiation is not to be confused with “independence” or selfish individuality. On the contrary, we are talking about the ability of a leader to be a self while still remaining a part of the system. It is the most difficult thing to do in any family. (p. 229)”

In practice, leadership through self-differentiation comes down to being a non-anxious presence. You do this by not letting your own anxiety spew forth into the interaction, while staying connected emotionally. There is a tension created when you try to be non-anxious and emotionally present.

It’s easy to be non-anxious and not emotionally present. This is detachment.

It’s also easy to be present and not control your anxiety. This often manifests itself as overfunctioning.

Leadership through self-differentiation is the ability to say “I believe” when everyone around is saying “you” or “we,” what Friedman calls surrounding togetherness pressures. Some examples:

  • You should or we should…telling you what to do directly or indirectly using group pressure.
  • You always or you never…whatever follows is typically blaming you for their own condition.

Anytime someone is not taking responsibility for their own goals, values or feelings, it makes it harder for you to do likewise. Yet, that is when it’s most important.

You know you are leading through self-differentiation, whether in your family, church or business, when you say “I believe” or “I feel” in a non-anxious way. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel anxious. You’re just able to control it in a way that prevents it from poisoning your interactions.

What goes unsaid here is that you are giving others the freedom to say “I,” as well.

Why does this matter?

Charles Duhigg, in his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, cites a large Google research project, code-named Project Aristotle, that sought to determine what social norms characterized the most effective teams. Duhigg summarized the results as coming down to two things: psychological safety and social sensitivity.

Psychological Safety is the sense that you can be honest and vulnerable without being embarrassed or punished by the group.

Social sensitivity is the ability to read non-verbal cues to gauge how others are feeling.

When these two norms are present, people feel free to speak their mind. They don’t have to get their own way, but if they have an opportunity to give their input, they are more likely to support the final decision, whether it is consistent with their opinion or not.

Furthermore, team members are more willing to take appropriate risks. Innovation and adaptation become possible because people are willing to risk failure.

Back to Lorne Michaels.

From Duhigg’s perspective, Michaels was able to create an environment where everyone felt heard, had a chance to give input and were aware of the feelings of others.

From a family systems perspective, I believe Michaels was a self-differentiated leader. He believed he knew what would make a great show. He was willing to express that in a way that created vision and direction. At the same time, by being a non-anxious presence, he encouraged others to express their own opinions passionately. By staying connected emotionally, his team knew that he valued their self-expression, even if their sketch didn’t make the show.

By leading through self-differentiation, Lorne Michaels led a group of gifted people with strong personalities to do their very best work for the sake of the show’s greater good.

In the church, there are many gifted people with strong personalities. When a leader is not self-defined, anxiety and chaos result. On the other hand, a self-defined leader creates the emotional space that enables God’s spirit to work…to do great things through gifted people.

Questions for Reflection:

As a leader, how able are you to state “I believe” or “I feel” in a non-anxious way?

In what leadership situations do you feel anxious? How do you manage it?

In what situations are you playing peacemaker when you should be leading through self-differentiation?