Maverick Life

REFLECTIONS ON LEADERSHIP

Expressing gratitude can have transformational power

Expressing gratitude can have transformational power
Gratitude journal. AI image generated with DALL-E using the prompt: "a 3D render of a hand writing 'thank you' in a journal, digital art, blue background"

Ever wondered why so many proverbs and adages become cliches? I have become increasingly passionate about seeking out and disseminating the power and value of such sayings, in my capacity as a writer, professional speaker and leadership practitioner.

As humans, we seem to have a utopian compulsion for jargon, seeking out new catchphrases and adopting them into our vernacular. The hallmark of the great marketing machine of the twentieth  and twenty-first centuries, was the scripting of perennial taglines and slogans in the creation and extrapolation of great brands, such that they became household names; with this came the recollection and repetition of payoff lines by consumers, which entrenched the perception and positioning of these great brands. 

Some companies allowed their taglines and slogans to evolve and change over time; others, such as De Beers, did not. Their great pitch, “A Diamonds is Forever”, has certainly stood the test of time – as has Nike’s “Just Do It”. 

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of successful brand proliferation is that of the Hoover vacuum cleaner. In fact, the term “Hoover” – just like “Google” today – became a household term for vacuuming. “I am just going to Hoover that mess off the carpet.”

What makes great proverbs and adages such powerful marketing messages? Maybe it is because at the heart of many clichés lies a rich and impactful – potentially life-changing – truth, waiting to be discovered and inculcated into an enriched way of living.

And yet, once a great adage is reduced to cliché, few people bother to reflect on or internalise the then less obvious pearl of wisdom. “Think out the box” comes to mind as one of many power statements that might have lost a little of their lustre.

Many of our social and professional ladder-climbers seem consumed by the need to be considered cool, smart and ahead of the curve, and are drawn to talk the latest jargon and throw around futuristic catchphrases – yet, what we need are leaders of substance, humility and authenticity.

That brings me to this thought (and another phrase you may have already heard quite often): how an “attitude of gratitude” is the catalyst for living a rich and full life and for being a leader of consequence.

Being grateful can truly be life-enriching; but it does not always come naturally. We are neurologically wired to have a scarcity mindset as a core element of our instinct for survival – which served our forefathers well in our early history. But is it still optimal today?  

There are several factors that can inhibit us from being grateful: 

  • When we become so accustomed to our routine or our possessions, that we stop appreciating them and take things for granted by not considering how fortunate we are.
  • When we constantly compare ourselves to others who seem to be more fortunate, we struggle to feel grateful for what we have.
  • When we are dealing with stress or anxiety, and it becomes difficult to focus on the positive facets of our lives; we can often feel overwhelmed by our problems and unable to appreciate how much we should be grateful for.
  • When we have a lack of mindfulness and are not present in the moment, we end up being too busy worrying about the future or holding on to the past, to appreciate the present; or when we simply feel entitled to things.

In contrast, having an attitude of gratitude can lead to several positive attributes, personality traits and behaviours like increased happiness (simply because we tend to focus more on the positive aspects of our lives, which improves our mood and overall wellbeing). 

Similarly, expressing gratitude can strengthen relationships; when we feel appreciated, we are more likely to reciprocate positive feelings, which in turn, can lead to stronger and more fulfilling relationships.

Feeling grateful could also mean showing greater empathy and compassion towards others; having an increased resilience in the face of adversity; having generosity of spirit. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: How small acts of kindness can make you happier and healthier

Leaders who exemplify an attitude of gratitude are generally respected by their followers, because they can demonstrate appreciation for the efforts and contribution of their team members, resulting in them feeling valued and respected. This serves to improve morale and job satisfaction. Leaders who express gratitude seem more relatable and easier to work with, further enhancing their reputation and respect among team members.

Gratitude is most often contagious, and when we model this behaviour, it inspires others to do the same. This leads to a more collaborative and supportive work environment, benefiting everyone.

A way of life

Gratitude should ideally be a way of life and a state of being. While we can develop this at any stage of our lives, the benefits of instilling this as early as possible in life are resounding.

There are several ways that parents, school teachers, and universities can foster and stimulate a spirit of gratitude in their students: first, as role models; then, by encouraging students to practise gratitude exercises, such as keeping a gratitude journal or writing thank-you notes. 

We can teach empathy and perspective-taking to help students understand and appreciate the experiences and struggles of others. We can provide opportunities for students to give back to their communities. When students see the positive impact they make on others, they will feel more grateful for what they have and might be more motivated to help others.

Gratitude is positively correlated to more vitality, energy and enthusiasm to work harder. Simple practices such as maintaining a gratitude journal, complimenting ourselves, or sending small tokens and thank-you notes can make us feel better. 

When we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions and they make us feel “good”. They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside. 

By consciously practising gratitude every day, we can help these neural pathways to strengthen themselves and ultimately create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves. In fact, when we practise gratitude, kindness and compassion, we are able to rewire our brains resulting in changed thoughts and habits.

This is why there is great value in reflecting on, internalising and putting into practise the rich and often forgotten truths within the clichés that some proverbs and adages might have become.

I remember so clearly the voice of my grandmother, from when I was a child, repeatedly saying “Count your blessings – there are always more than what you think”. While this expression is viewed today by many as being hackneyed, its relevance is more current than ever. 

During the Covid pandemic, I would identify every day an additional “blessing” as a virtual seed, plant it in my garden and step back to celebrate its beauty and meaning, thereby experiencing humility and gratefulness for all that made my life’s journey rich and celebrated and invoked a rich metamorphosis of self. Amid all turmoil and challenges in the world today lies unprecedented opportunity for greatness and growth. DM/ML

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