Opening note: I interchange the use of appreciation and gratitude in this post; they are synonymous.
I firmly believe that “true” leadership is based on influence, not power or authority. My favorite definition of leadership comes from John C. Maxwell, “leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” Leading through influence requires leaders to earn the trust of their people; through care, compassion, and empathy; and often being someone that others like to work with (termed social cohesion). One aspect of influence-based leadership that is often ignored is the act of showing appreciation and gratitude. Never underestimate the power of appreciation!
In his book, Love Does, Bob Goff states that, “people need love and appreciation more than they need advice.” I like to pair this thought with two other quotes to best capture the impact of appreciation in our leadership: Charles Schwab is credited for saying, “the way to develop the best that is in a person is by appreciation and encouragement.” Finally, author Gertrude Stein stated that, “silent gratitude isn’t [worth] very much to anyone.”
In reflecting on those thoughts, and in considering my leadership experience over the last few years, I’ve extrapolated a few lessons about leadership and appreciation. First, appreciation and gratitude must be behaviors, not just internal attitudes. In her quote above, Stein targeted that point exactly; feeling and thinking your appreciation is nice, but it doesn’t bring any benefit to your people until it is expressed. Second, if you don’t have the social capital as a leader yet (maybe you are new to your leadership role or new to the organization), the best way to start building trust, that social capital, and earning the right to speak into your peoples’ lives is through positive energy, optimism, and showing appreciation early for your peoples’ efforts. Finally, I’ve found that leading with gratitude and optimism seem to be the best way to inspire commitment, passion, enjoyment in our work, and hope across the organization; in short, leading with appreciation gets sustained results and builds an encouraging culture. Team members who are shown appreciation feel like a valued member of the team and thus are more willing to pour themselves into the team’s efforts and goals.
Gratitude as a Behavior, Not Just an Attitude
We need to materialize appreciation into our routine behaviors, not just make it an internal feeling or thought. A previous instructor and respected mentor of mine taught me that showing gratitude offers three gifts across our organization:
- Gratitude provides a gift to the giver: A leader showing appreciation experiences the intrinsic satisfaction of having a positive and inspiring impact on another person’s life. It is a personal joy to see my people experience feeling valued.
- It provides a gift to the receiver: When we are shown appreciation, we know that our efforts are noticed and we feel like a valued, contributing member of the team. Appreciation is a simple way to communicate meaning to our peoples’ efforts and how they add value to our organization.
- And a gift to the organization: Finally, the whole organization wins when we show gratitude and appreciation to one another. When our routine interactions are founded on mutual appreciation, everyone becomes more positive, we enjoy working with one another, and we begin to care more about the organizational goals over our personal desires. Appreciation eradicates unhealthy internal organizational competition, conflict, and rivalries.
How to Lead with Appreciation
I lead with appreciation in three concrete ways.
Gratitude Week. My instructor and mentor mentioned above also introduced me to organizational letters of gratitude. Twice a year (week of Thanksgiving and around spring break in the spring), my Cadet company conducts our “Bulldog Gratitude Challenge.” During the week, we set a goal of the number of letters of gratitude we wish to write to each other in the company (last week’s goal was 150). I provide 5×8 notecards with our Bulldog logo on them for the Cadets to take and write their letters on (yes, there is a small personal financial requirement to buy personalized notecards). When Cadets write their letters, they mark a tick on our “Bulldog Gratitude” butcher block tracker. Our Cadets then hand deliver their gratitude letters to one another over the week. These small letters then become key organizational artifacts for our culture founded on appreciation and optimism.
Daily Reminders. I absolutely agree with Bob Goff’s quote above on how people need love and appreciation more than they need advice. Thus, I try to showcase my love and appreciation as much as I can in my daily interactions with my people by saying “I love you” and “I’m proud of you.” I communicate these in my birthday cards to my Cadets, in personal routine-business emails, counseling, as well as during face-to-face interactions. I just feel that our young, emerging leaders like Cadets need to be told that someone is proud of them and cares for them, and I try to reinforce that as often as I can.
Personal Reflection. Finally, the best way to lead with appreciation is by being clear on what I am thankful for every day myself. I think this starts at home. Appreciation should be a practice in all areas in your life from being a spouse, parent, friend, family member, and so on. I think that if you make appreciation a habit in your daily life, it also naturally bleeds into your leadership.
In my reflection series post, I introduce some personal routine reflection prompts, which include topics of gratitude and thankfulness. Additionally, my wife and I attempt to daily “debrief” each other about our experiences that day by asking four questions: 1) What was the best part of my day? Why? 2) What was the worst part of my day? Why? 3) What am I looking forward to tomorrow? 4) What am I thankful for today?
Thanks for Reading!
I think it is appropriate to conclude with a quote from Max De Pree, author of Leadership is an Art: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” Leadership and appreciation go hand-in-hand. Never underestimate the power of appreciation.
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