Gratitude: A pre-requisite of leadership
“Hi Mom. Could I have your pumpkin pie recipe?”
Silence on the other end of the phone
“Mom, Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Mom, I have 12 people coming for Thanksgiving tomorrow. Could I please have your pumpkin pie recipe?”
Silence. Uncomfortable silence for what may have been only about 20 seconds, but it seemed forever.
“All right, Alan. Do you have a pencil? Because I’m only going to say it once.”
I’ve come to realize that Nan Culler, my mother, defined herself by her pies, not her cakes, or her coding skills, her pies. When I was telling my sisters about the success of that Thanksgiving later, they each said “You have Mom’s pumpkin pie recipe?”
Evidently, she didn’t share her pie recipes and this was one more example of my spoiled youngest child- ness, my male privilege. My older sisters have repeatedly informed me that my parents, so happy to have a male child after two girls, called me “Boy” so often that when I was two I thought my name was Alan Boy Culler.
Thanksgiving is that most American of holidays. It is wrapped up in the myths of the founding of our country – Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe sharing a harvest feast with the Pilgrims, totally ignoring our treatment of America’s First Peoples before or since.
It is wrapped up with our obsession with food. Thanksgiving begins the end of year eat-fest that has us each gain 10 pounds every fall and contributes madly to the economy by encouraging the early January sale of fitness club memberships that mostly go unused after the first two weeks of the year.
It is a time of family and those uncomfortable conversations that you have every year with those family members who don’t reside in your particular socio-economic-political bubble,
What we sometimes forget in all this is idea contained in the very name of the holiday, Thanksgiving – a day of giving thanks, a day of showing our gratitude - publicly.
I’ve come to admire grateful people, people who say “thank you” and mean it. I have observed that truly effective leaders often thank people. They thank people for the work that they do. They thank people for sharing their vision, for following, as it were.
I see leaders who thank veterans for their service and go beyond the perfunctory “thanks for your service,” but engage, ask what branch, or where they served, genuinely show interest in someone willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the good of us all.
Gratitude requires humility. It recognizes the fact that no matter how well we perform individually, in sports, in building a business, in being a parent or in living our life, we don’t do it alone. Bill Gates had access to a computer club from an early age and had a partner in Paul Allen. Bruce Springsteen could obsess about music with “Little Steven” Van Zandt and had the “Big Man” Clarence Clemmons on sax, when Jon Landau famously exclaimed “I have seen rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen!”
Gratitude requires recognition of the contribution of others and perspective about our own limitations and good fortune. Gratitude requires empathy.
One of the first songs I wrote, simply called “Thanksgiving”, and sung occasionally at the holiday feast includes the lines:
So it's thankful are we for this harvest at table,And mindful are we of those who have none.
Leaders who express gratitude inherently recognize that not everyone has the same advantages. Empathy, means putting yourself in the other’s shoes literally feeling with them. It is quite different from sympathy, feeling for. The separation between ourselves and others disappears.
I’ve come to believe that gratitude is a pre-requisite for enlightened leadership. That being publically grateful is a trait, value and behavior that is required for the job of leading others. (I don’t mean perquisite – perk, a privilege or side benefit of the job. Though, come to think about it, that could also be true.) To be a leader you must be grateful. Talented people don’t follow the ungrateful for long.
Some leaders are naturally grateful people. The rest of us may have to work at it more. Some years ago my daughter dated a young man who started a website, which sent you an email link each day which connected you to your page where you could enter the three things you were grateful for that day. There many such websites today. It was quite an amazing habit, which I’ve kept up long after my daughter and this young man stopped seeing each other.
Today, in honor of the season, I’ll share some of the things for which I am grateful:
• I am grateful for work, for the clients who have supported me and my colleagues, for the challenge of helping leaders make strategic change, to innovate, integrate and improve.
• I am grateful for learning, for the shoulders of giants who have gone before me in the field of change, for the mentors, colleagues and who have pushed me to improve so that I can be better at helping others. The learning I have attained can never be paid back, but only paid forward.
• I am grateful for love, in all its myriad forms that I have experienced – my parents and sisters, my wife, Billie, my children, grandchildren, family, and friends. I have not always been worthy, but I will always be thankful.
And, yes, I am grateful for my mother’s pumpkin pie recipe, which I have shared with my sisters and children, and the product of which, with a large-ish dollop of home-made whipped cream, we will gratefully consume next Thursday.
Thank you, readers, clients, friends, and colleagues. May you be grateful for many blessings and helpful to those who have less.