This essay is republished annually during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday.
In his classic satirical novel, The Screwtape Letters (1942), C.S. Lewis writes,
Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.
A Christian writing fictional letters between two devils, Lewis was not alone in praising the virtue of gratitude. Cicero, the second century Roman pagan considered one of the greatest statesmen of all time, is credited with saying,
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.
Here in the United States, we even have a national holiday dedicated to giving thanks to God. For many people, Thanksgiving Day is enjoyed over the entire last four days of the week in which it falls each November. Retailers have reason to be especially thankful of this tradition.
It’s also an annual tradition for the President to give a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. The GetCurrentFast.com article, Thanksgiving Day Proclamations — Then and Now, includes four of them. The selections are from Washington, Lincoln, Reagan, and Obama, and they give sterling examples of top leaders modeling an attitude of gratitude.
Holy Communion is referred to as the Eucharist by Catholics. This is a transliteration from the Greek eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. In fact, Holy Communion is considered the highest form of giving thanks to God by adherants.
Brian Tracy, one of the foremost pioneers in the fields of self-improvement and motivational speaking often talks and writes about what he calls the attitude of gratitude. He firmly believes “this simple saying [Thank you] can have so much power to change your life and the lives of others.”
As leaders, are we modeling an attitude of gratitude? Do we mentor others toward developing one of their own? Do we show our direct reports by word and deed that we appreciate them and their work?
Speaking for myself, I’m a work in progress in this area. I’m inclined to believe that if I’m not critical of others, than they should know that I appreciate them and their work. I’m not sure where I picked up this false doctrine of leadership and management, but it wasn’t from the top leaders I admire the most.
Lately, I’m trying to write more notes of acknowledgement or gratitude a day. These notes are handwritten, not emailed or, heaven forbid, sent by text. I borrowed the idea from fellow serial entrepreneur Michael Masterson who wrote the pithy but powerful book, The Reluctant Entrepreneur, Turning Dreams Into Profits. (He allows for emailed notes.) As he points out, if you wrote one each weekday you would touch the lives of 300 people who probably seldom receive a note of praise or thanks.
The following birthday letter to a mom can further stir you into action lest you think you have all the time in the world to develop an attitude of gratitude in you and your team.
“I would not be the man I am, nor would I sing the way I do, nor would I have written the songs I have written without the influence and inspiration you have been to me. I want you to know that today there are hundreds, if not thousands, who join me in saying, “God bless the day that you were born.’”
The letter was written by John Deutschendorf two months before he was killed in a plane crash. You probably recognize him by his stage name, John Denver.
For me, this particular lesson in expressing gratitude was learned in a very personal way. My older brother Danny died suddenly of a massive heart attack at age 44. He was quite a bit older than me and so we weren’t very close growing up. This changed. Through early adulthood, he and I were close friends, and business partners. I’ll never forget the big burly guy with the bushy hair and beard who was determined that the two of us as bachelors were going to learn how to ballroom dance. We didn’t, but shared a lot of laughs trying. On business matters, however, he and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on an important matter so one day I forced the sale of our business. Understandably, he took this very hard, and personally. Nonetheless, a few short years later my big bro was instrumental in my acquisition of a large client. Until his death our relationship was healing slowly but surely.
During this time I took a Dale Carnegie management course. One day, our assignment was to write a personal note to someone who had been very important in our life, and yet may not be aware of it. Danny wasn’t sentimental, but I wrote my note of appreciation to him, mailed it off, and promptly forgot about it. Shortly after his death, his widow Laurie discovered the note. It was in the few pieces of personal memorabilia he saved.
In case you’re thinking that all this talk about gratitude is touchy feely stuff, the Wall Street Journal reported that there was a study on the topic as it pertains to high schoolers. According to the report, the study, published in 2010 in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found that those who showed high levels of gratitude, for instance thankfulness for the beauty of nature and strong appreciation of other people, reported having stronger GPAs, less depression and envy and a more positive outlook than less grateful teens.
A personal leadership virtue (PLV) that closely aligns with an attitude of gratitude is one of forgiveness. This is defined as the act of forgiving or the state of being forgiven or pardoned. It does not require that the person or entity deserves it.
Last week in this column, I mentioned my appreciation for Nelson Mandela’s legacy of forgiveness. I’m convinced that South Africa would not be at its current stage of economic and social development without Mandela successfully leading his fellow black citizens to forgive the transgressions of others.
Here at home, Martin Luther King, Jr. likewise encouraged the use of the virtue. “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love,” the late civil rights leader said. Of course, to develop the capacity to forgive takes commitment and practice.
You may recall that Jesus was asked how often someone is to be forgiven and he famously said in the Gospel of Matthew that we are to forgive someone not seven times as suggested by the Apostle Peter, but seventy-seven times. This was obviously in anticipation of someone in the 21st Century claiming, “been there, done that” after having forgiven someone just once.
The minister Edwin Hubbel Chapin eloquently stated that “Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it forgoes revenge, and dares to forgive an injury.”
Former labor leader and Polish President Lech Walesa recently made the news because he modeled this principle. You may recall that he had a role in forcing the Communist regime of the former Soviet Union to let go of its grip on Poland. His nemisis at the time was General Wolciech Jaruzelski, a Communist leader. According to a Reuters report, the general “oversaw violent crackdowns on pro-democracy activists before the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.” In one instance, dozens of people were killed. Some Poles were unable to forgive him. Outside the general’s funeral Mass, “Protesters gatecrashed his burial ceremony, shouting ‘traitor!’ and ‘Go back to Moscow!'”
Lech Walesa would have none of this. He not only attended the deceased former Communist’s funeral, he knelt in prayer for his soul in the front pew. At the Sign of Peace, he crossed the aisle and shook the hands of the general’s widow, daughter, and grandson.
Everett L. Worthington Jr. is another extraordinary example of someone who understands forgiveness. The author has dedicated his career to its study. He found that it “carries tremendous health and social benefits,” according to his byline.
The author points out that “studies are finding connections between forgiveness and physical, mental, and spiritual health and evidence that it plays a key role in the health of families, communities, and nations. Though this research is still young, it has already produced some exciting findings.”
His work is published by the University of California at Berkeley Greater Good Science Center which provides suggestions on how to practice forgiveness and how to cultivate forgiveness. Not all the advice is applicable to business and organizational situations, but it does include sage advice such as,
“Understand that forgiveness is a process: True forgiveness doesn’t happen in an instant; instead, it takes time and energy to achieve, and might not come easily.”
In business and organizational situations, the following suggestion of his may be especially relevant: “humanize the other through contact.” The center points out:
Research in Northern Ireland found that people on both sides of the violence there were more likely to forgive if they came into contact with someone from the other side, perhaps because it reduced feelings of anger and encouraged them to see the other’s humanity.
As the top executive of a business or organization, there are many scenarios in which internal and external affairs could be improved when you practice and cultivate forgiveness. While some actions may require holding the other person or entity accountable, this doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t forgive.
Granted, the topics of gratitude and forgiveness are not commonly discussed among leaders and managers. This may change as more evidence is presented on how good they can be for mind, body, and soul —and thus ultimately good for your business or organization. Now’s your chance to be part of the avant garde.
In the meantime, enjoy the sarcastic wit of writer Oscar Wilde who had this to say:
Always forgive your enemies — nothing annoys them so much.
– Quotes from Wikiquote unless otherwise noted.
— GCF —
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