How gratitude can unlock your leadership potential

There’s long been a terrible — and entirely unfounded — belief that the most powerful people must accrue the worst kinds of personality traits in order to be successful.

I’m talking about the outdated management model of the tyrannical boss — the one who everyone tiptoes around, worried about whether they’re going to get his lunch order wrong, make a mistake around him, or tell him something he doesn’t want to hear (even if he really, really needs to hear it).

These kinds of bosses have become almost caricatures, especially since they make frequent appearances in movies and television. Who could forget The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly, was able to control an entire room with one withering look. Or what about Ebenezer Scrouge — one of the original bad bosses? ’Tis the season to remember that he wouldn’t let his employee take Christmas Day off to spend with his family.

These kinds of bosses exist in real life, too. According to recent research, only about half of employees feel that their boss values their contribution, and almost one in five think their boss takes credit for their work.

That’s a big problem because, as Harvard Business Review notes, “when people have a good relationship with their leaders, they’re more motivated, they perform better, and they’re more likely to go the extra mile to support their team.”

But new research — and the more we learn about optimizing management skills — is showing us a new path. Call it the “kinder, gentler” leader, but the world is finally learning that the best leaders exhibit a lot of benevolent traits.

Can gratitude make you more successful?

A new series of studies from Gonzaga University and Claremont McKenna College shows that powerful people feel more grateful than those with less power. (Power, in this case, was defined as both control over resources due to social standing and one’s self-perceived influence.)

These findings buck previous research that found that powerful people had less gratitude, and that, in becoming more powerful, they tended to be more self-focused (i.e., selfish), and that the quality of their relationships declined.

Instead, in the recently published trio of studies, researchers found:

  1. a strong positive relationship between individuals’ sense of power and their feelings of gratitude;
  2. that self-esteem fosters this positive power-gratitude relationship; and
  3. again, that there’s a positive relationship of power to gratitude via self-esteem.

“We argue that because gratitude is predicated on the recognition that others value oneself, power amplifies rather than undercuts feelings of gratitude,” the research notes.

Despite previous evidence to the contrary, it comes as no surprise to me that there’s a strong power-gratitude connection. As CEO of Jotform, a business with over 140 employees and millions of users, I’ve seen firsthand the power of gratitude in the workplace — with colleagues, with clients, and with pretty much anyone else who crosses my path.

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We’ve come a long way in our thinking about gratitude since Oprah Winfrey started encouraging her then-daytime talk show audience to keep a journal of things they are thankful for. She has called keeping a gratitude journal the most important thing she has ever done for herself. (And speaking of powerful people…)

As she said on an Oprah’s Life Class episode that aired in 2012, 

“I believe that no matter what is going on in your life, if you concentrate on what you have, you will always end up having more. If you focus on what you don’t have, it will never, ever be enough.”

Benefits that flow from being thankful

Social psychologists and other researchers are now dedicating serious resources to observing and explaining the remarkable impact that gratitude can have on someone’s personal and professional life — including long-term overall mental health benefits.

According to Robert Emmons of the University of California, one of the world’s leading scientific researchers on gratitude, has studied people ages eight to 80, and has found that those who practice gratitude report a wide range of benefits:

Physical benefits:

  • stronger immune systems
  • fewer nagging aches and pains
  • lower blood pressure
  • better self-care
  • longer and deeper sleep

Psychological benefits:

  • higher levels of positive emotions
  • more alertness and feelings of being alive
  • greater joy and pleasure
  • more optimism and happiness

Social benefits:

  • more helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • more forgiving
  • more outgoing
  • less lonely and isolated

What does that mean for you as a leader? 

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A lot. Think about how these various benefits could come together to make you stronger, smarter, more appreciative, and more in tune with yourself and others. Think about how sleeping better could help you reach your potential, and how having higher self-regard might give you the confidence to believe that anything is possible.

And here’s another cool thing: 

Gratitude encourages us to not only appreciate what we have but to pay things forward, too.

As we feel increasingly satisfied and grateful for our lot, we seemingly want to make life a little easier for those around us. And then him or her for someone else, and so on and so on. This virtuous chain might be the reason that sociologist Georg Simmel called gratitude “the moral memory of mankind.”

Some have even posited that this is how and why gratitude may have evolved — by strengthening bonds between members of the same species and consolidating mutually beneficial interactions.

So how can you make gratitude work for you?

That was actually a bit of a trick question. Gratitude isn’t the kind of thing you can hack to optimize your performance. If it doesn’t come from a genuine place, you won’t see the benefits.

But here are five tips adapted from Emmons on how you can start to integrate a gratitude practice into your life and work:

1. Keep a gratitude journal — but make it all business

You might already know what you have to be thankful for in your personal life, but what about your professional life? When you’re trying to get through the daily grind, it can be tough to focus on the positive. So start keeping a gratitude journal related to your professional sphere — you’ll be amazed (and very grateful) to learn how many people have helped you along the way.

2. Remember the bad

There’s been so much emphasis on failure — and how it can help you as a leader — over the last several years, but much of that focus relies on identifying and then moving on from mistakes. But what if taking a moment to dwell on your missteps made you more appreciative of where you are today?

3. Ask yourself three questions

Emmons recommends drawing on a meditation technique known as Naikan to reflect on three key questions: What have I received from X? What have I given to X? and What troubles and difficulty have I caused?

4. Use visual reminders

Emmons identifies the two primary obstacles to gratefulness as forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness, so he recommends some visual reminders that can serve as cues. Look for a symbol that you can place on or near your desk that reminds you of your objective to practice more gratitude.

5. Go through the motions

Practicing gratitude is like exercising a muscle — the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Emmons recognizes grateful motions as smiling, saying thank you, and writing letters of gratitude, so think about how you can introduce and then expand on those ideas in the workplace.

Maybe you should give team members the opportunity to express gratitude at the beginning of certain meetings to set the right tone or consider picking one team member every week or month to whom you can express your gratitude for what a great job they’re doing.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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