Gratitude, A Leadership Practice

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.”


In our programs, we position gratitude as a leadership practice. Being in a state of thankfulness brings out the best in us. In that state, we are more reflective and thoughtful; we are more positive and others-oriented—less self-centered and critical. 

Let’s pause for a moment right now and experience it: 

What is one small thing you are thankful for today?

Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Call to mind one thing you appreciate. You are happy or grateful because of this one thing.

Welcome to the state of thankful! You are already more pleasant to be around. Very likely, your heart rate went down, and you are more relaxed and open to ideas. In this state, you attract rather than repel people. And, as Henri Nouwen wrote, “…every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for. Gratitude begets gratitude.” 

This is particularly important for us during tough times, when we naturally focus on the negative—becoming critical and sometimes bitter, blind to the good we could appreciate. In intense times like the ones we keep finding ourselves in the middle of, it is good to pause even momentarily to consider what we are thankful for.

Whether it is the valued contribution of a teammate or the morning sun rising, the first step is pausing to take it in—to notice. Take a deep breath and recognize the value. Enjoy the moment. If a person is the source, the second step is to convey your genuine appreciation.

To appreciate is “to recognize how good someone or something is and to value them or it” (Cambridge Dictionary). You can’t genuinely appreciate something (or someone) unless you “grasp their nature, worth, quality, or significance” (Websters). 

What happens when leaders express appreciation to others?

For one, people on the receiving end feel noticed and appreciated. They feel a greater sense of connection and trust—first with the person who expressed gratitude, and then, often, with the broader social group they work with. And it is infectious!

In their book Team Genius, Karlgaard and Malone write: “When managers express gratitude, it can increase employees’ sense of social worth and self-conceptions as viable members of the organization. And that, in turn, promotes pro-social behaviors that tie the team together even more…And bonded groups almost always perform better than their less-well-bonded counterparts.”[1]

And a growing body of research on the benefits of gratitude points to broader positive impacts on relationships, goal achievement, health, and well-being, amongst others.

Call to Action: Practice Expressing Gratitude

Build your gratitude roster (see below), and then pick one person a week and write him or her a note of gratitude. Consider the difference this person has made in your life and tell them about it. Be as specific as you can about how that person impacted you and what you are appreciative for.

Build Your Gratitude Roster

Part 1: People In Your Life—Past

As you reflect on your life journey, notice the people who have made a meaningful impact on you in the past. Who contributed to your development? Who stands out during your challenges? In your best moments? Take a minute to write down their names.

Part 2: People In Your Life—Present

Slow down and consider the people in your life today. Who is contributing to your development? To your well-being? To your success (or the success of the team)? Who might you be taking for granted? Take a minute to write down their names.

Pro Tips for Conveying Appreciation

1. Be genuine. You are honoring the person and the relationship because you truly care and because it is a good thing in and of itself—gratitude is virtuous.  

2. Be specific. Cut through the generalizations and describe in concrete ways what you genuinely appreciate. Instead of, “Thank you for your help” you might say, “Thank you for coming in two hours early and sacrificing your personal priorities to help me meet my deadline.”

3. Describe their impact on you and/or the mission. Building on the example above, “I feel a deep sense of gratitude for what you did. Not only did I meet my deadline, thank you very much! but I feel proud of what we created, which is already yielding results in the field.” 

4. Consider the form. You can share in person, text, email, or call—all good forms. Hand-written notes can have an especially positive impact, perhaps because they are increasingly rare, and people hold on to them. You might even reciprocate through an act of service. Whichever form you choose, the key is to do it. As Gertrude Stein reminds us, “Silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone.”


We consider gratitude a leadership practice. Being in a state of gratitude brings out the best in us, and expressing gratitude to others positively impacts the receiver, the relationship, and the team (the larger social group). We like the word “practice” because gratitude is cultivated day by day, interaction by interaction. Pause, notice, appreciate…repeat. Finally, with a nod back to pro-tip #1 above, there is really only one rule about expressing gratitude: it must be done genuinely and with no ulterior motive. You are honoring the person and the relationship because you actually care and because it is a good thing in and of itself.


Dig Deeper: 1 book, 1 article, 1 video for further study

Robert Emmons is a leading expert on gratitude. This book provides a strong foundation on the topic and the research behind it.
A quick read to give you a sense for Robert Emmons’ work on the topic. (Give it a second to load)
A 5-minute inspirational video by the award-winning cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg. Use it to help move you into a state of thankfulness. We intentionally start the video at the 4:45 mark.

[1] Karlgaard, Rich and Michael S. Malone, Team Genius: The New Science of High-Performing Organizations (2015).