Gratitude & Leadership: Why Enlightened Leaders Know To Be Grateful

Grateful leader says thank you

Gratitude and enlightened leadership go hand-in-hand. At their very hearts, both are fundamentally about honoring and nurturing the human element of give-and-take relationships. The word gratitude comes from the latin roots gratia and gratus, meaning pleasing and favor. Quite literally, one gives gratitude to another for having done a pleasing favor. Without gratitude, relationships are stripped to their economic bolts and grow mechanical and cold. Gratitude, then, is the very currency of human relationship.

Just as gratitude is the currency of human relationship, so too is human relationship the currency of enlightened leadership. Enlightened leaders know that if they are to achieve anything great, they need to be able to rely on the blood, sweat and tears of those they lead. Enlightened leaders also know that the blood, sweat and tears of those they lead cannot be bought with money, but can only be earned with the dividends of human relationship. Since gratitude is the very currency of human relationship, enlightened leaders know that cultivating it is a key practice in their roles as leaders.

Practicing gratitude yields tremendous benefits to leaders themselves, the people they lead, and indeed to their entire organizations. The benefits of gratitude to leaders themselves include elevated mood, reduced stress, better cognition, and improved health. This, in turn, rubs off on their people. As a result, leaders’ employees enjoy the same benefits, thereby increasing their motivation and engagement, and improving their work relationships and job satisfaction. By consequence, the entire organization benefits from fewer sick days, less turnover, and greater productivity. It all starts from the top, and enlightened leaders know that a solid orientation towards gratitude can generate a strong upward spiral of success for their whole team.

Gratitude Benefits Leaders Themselves

Leading experts in the field of positive psychology consistently identify gratitude as one of the most – if not the most – powerful tool for emotional health and wellbeing. In her book The How of Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, places gratitude at the very top of her list, calling it “a kind of metastrategy for achieving happiness.” This is due in part to the fact that feelings of gratitude are simply incompatible with negative emotions. As a result, gratitude actually diminishes or supplants destructive feelings such as anger, hatred, bitterness, or greed. The emotional health that results benefits all aspects of a leader’s life, at work and elsewhere.

In additional to improving emotional health, gratitude also sharpens mental acuity. As Shawn Achor – one of the world’s leading experts in human potential – points out in his book The Happiness Advantage, studies show that those who practice gratitude gain a distinct cognitive edge over those who do not. The heightened sense of happiness that accompanies gratitude stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. As a result, those who regularly practice gratitude are able to learn faster, organize information better, keep it in memory longer, and retrieve it quicker. They are not only able to engage in more complex analysis and problem solving, but they are also able to be more creative and see more ways of doing things.

Yet gratitude doesn’t just improve emotional and cognitive health, it also promotes physical health. In his book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert A. Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis – and the world’s leading expert on gratitude – tells us that those who practice gratitude sleep better, exercise more regularly, cope with stress more effectively, and fall ill less frequently. (for more on the benefits of exercise for leaders, see my article Fit To Lead: Why Effective Leaders Exercise - click here). Indeed, so salubrious are the side effects of gratitude that Dr. Emmons claims it can even add as many as nine years to our lives. It appears, then, that gratitude not only improves quality of life, but quantity of life as well.

Gratitude Benefits Leaders’ Employees

Emotions – especially powerful ones – are contagious. That is why when somebody smiles at you, you can’t help but feel an upward pull at the edges of your mouth. It is also why when somebody is caught in the raptures of an all-out belly laugh, it’s darn near impossible not to start laughing too. Yet the infectious power of emotions is not the same across all types of relationships. We are less likely to be emotionally influenced by a total stranger than we are by a close relative, co-worker or friend. Thus, the positive emotions of grateful leaders not only benefit the leaders themselves, but also those with whom they are in close relationship, namely the people they lead.

As a result, enlightened leaders know that gratitude can have a profoundly positive effect on their employees. That is why in his much celebrated book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie says the very first principle of leadership is: “begin with praise and honest appreciation.” Appreciation is a flower that is rooted in gratitude, and like all flowers it can do absolute wonders for relationships. Indeed, so powerful can words of appreciation be that in his book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, Bob Nelson points out that “a sincere word of thanks from the right person at the right time can mean more to an employee than a raise, a formal award, or a whole wall of certificates and plaques.” More often than not, the result is employees who are more motivated, engaged and satisfied with their work.

Like a light that passes from one candle to the next, the positive effects of gratitude and appreciation expressed by a leader to her employees may then be passed on from employee to employee. When one employee feels appreciated, he is more likely to extend his appreciation to his colleagues. This, in turn, serves to improve collegiality and teamwork, benefitting everyone involved. As Shawn Achor puts it:

[S]tudies have shown that gratitude sparks an upward spiral of relationship growth where each individual feels more motivated to strengthen the bond. It also predicts feelings of integration and cooperation within a larger group, which means that the more gratitude one employee expresses toward another employee, the more social cohesion they feel among the whole team.

Gratitude Benefits Leaders’ Entire Organizations

When all the individuals in a team – be they leaders or otherwise – have an ‘attitude of gratitude’ it is not only the individuals themselves who experience the benefits, but their entire organization as well. Because of the emotional, cognitive, and health advantages described above, gratitude yields positive results on both sides of the profit and loss statement. On the one hand, people are likely to work smarter, faster and longer, thereby stimulating growth and positive returns for the organization. On the other hand, people are less likely to lose time being disengaged, get caught up in destructive in-fighting, or require as many days off due to emotional malaise or physical illness, thereby reducing waste and lowering costs. As a result, gratitude generates efficiencies for the entire organization. And the best part of all: it doesn’t cost a thing.

Gratitude Is A Tide That Lifts All Boats

In the end, enlightened leaders know that their most fundamental purpose as leaders is to leverage the power of their people as much, and as effectively as possible. They know that in order to do so, they must go beyond the thin pale of duty and responsibility, and use the currency of human relationship to open the hearts of those they lead. Enlightened leaders know that the key to their employees’ hearts – and indeed, the key to their own – can be found in gratitude. And when one grateful heart opens another, and another, and another, out floods a tide of positive emotion that serves to lift all boats – the boats of leaders themselves, their employees, and their entire organizations.

Adam Kay - Adam A. Kay is a leadership and professional development consultant and coach. A former international lawyer and business executive, Adam is passionate about personal, professional and organizational excellence. His clientele include lawyers, executives and business professionals located throughout Canada and the United States. Read more about Adam.

One Comment


  1. Leo
    Aug 08, 2013

    Very insightful article! I read “How to Make Friends and Influence People” a few months ago and realized the importance of showing sincere gratitude and appreciation for work well done. When someone is constantly condemned they loose incentive to keep working to their best capabilities. They feel that they are only being noticed when they make mistakes.Work done out of fear is stressful. On the other hand, those who work under an enlightened leader have more incentive to work optimally because they feel that their hard work will be noticed and praised giving them recognition and a feeling of importance.

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