Learn to express your gratitude

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.”

— Max DePree: “Leadership is an Art”

Max Depree is the former CEO for Herman Miller Inc. He is a member of Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Business Enterprise Trust’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “Leadership is an Art” was written in 1989.

I suspect that Depree’s wisdom was rooted in his belief that all human beings need to know that what they do makes a difference. He had a great appreciation for the impact in a business culture when leaders offer the authentic expression of gratitude. He recognized that the practice of expressing gratitude increases energy and optimism in the workplace. Employees are much more inclined to exceed expectations when they feel appreciated for their efforts.

When our son, Jonathan, was in college, he had an internship in the marketing department of a retail store headquartered in Milwaukee. One day, he returned home looking as though he had just won the lottery! When asked about his obvious enthusiasm, he told us that while he was working on a project, he felt a hand on his shoulder. When he turned around, the vice president of marketing was standing behind him. He thanked Jonathan for the contribution he was making to the team’s efforts. He acknowledged that the work that Jonathan was doing was tedious, and yet significant to the overall success of the department. That experience was more than five years ago. I am confident it will remain a permanent imprint in our son’s memory and influence his desire and capacity to express gratitude to others.

Clearly we know the benefit of receiving expressed appreciation from a leader. What is equally significant is what science tells us about the intrinsic value for a leader who engages in the practice of expressing gratitude.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that gratitude is the single emotion which soothes the part of our brain (the amygdala) that holds our emotional memory. Under stress, leaders may experience an emotional hijack. An event, a comment, a thought may trigger the amygdala. When that occurs, cortisol floods the neocortex, the site in the brain that holds our working memory and IQ, and we are unable to think. We experience the “fight or flight” response. Chemicals are released into the bloodstream, and it takes three to four hours for blood to clear itself.

We have recognized levels of stress in our client leaders during the Great Recession of this past year, unlike anything that we have witnessed in the past. We have experienced leaders losing their tempers, withdrawing, having difficulty making decisions, etc. Each of these behaviors are destructive for the leader and for the business.

Scientists suggest that the practice of gratitude prepares leaders to manage their emotions more effectively during times of stress.

An exercise recommended by many executive coaches to their clients is to create a Gratitude Journal. If you are willing to experiment with this practice, here are the instructions:

Gratitude journal

On the left side of the page, clients are encouraged to write: Gratitude Now; on the right side Gratitude in the Future.

Gratitude now

Every morning, write down five things that you are currently grateful for on the left side of the page. You may want to start each line with: “I am truly grateful for …”

Gratitude in the future

On the right side of the page, write down five things that you are grateful for in the future. Choose goals that you want to achieve in the future and be grateful for them in the present moment.

Every night, give heartfelt thanks for the day (no matter what the day was like!). Consider the people you will express your gratitude to the following day.

We now know that Max DePree’s wisdom written in 1989 makes a difference for the leader expressing gratitude, as well as for the recipients of that gratitude. Perhaps our New Year’s resolution for 2010 might be: more gratitude all around!

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (www.ccvernal.com), a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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