Gratitude: The Most Important Leadership Trait

by Quentin Schultze

Some years ago I met with former Herman Miller CEO Max DePree to discuss communication. I humbly wanted to confer about his splendid definition of leadership in The Art of Leadership:

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

I had concluded personally that DePree’s definition should begin with the right attitude: gratitude. Real leaders are grateful ones. They are a joy to follow. And they are more effective. So I asked DePree if he thought that maybe the attitude of gratitude should come before “defining reality” in his definition of leadership. I suggested that the amended definition of leadership begin something like this: “The first responsibility of a leader is to accept gratefully the call to serve others.” He quickly agreed. I was relieved. And grateful.

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

Why is such preliminary thankfulness important? Why not include gratitude just in the last part of DePree’s definition? Because gratitude gets to the basic demeanor of a servant-minded communicator. Being grateful is a heartfelt way of living and growing. It’s the soil from which the best communication grows. What should a leader give thanks for? Certainly for the opportunity to serve others. For a place and time and people to lead.

A leader should also be thankful for the gift of communication itself. We couldn’t lead or follow without it. We can give thanks for the many people who contributed to our own abilities to communicate. Consider the roles of grandparents and parents, siblings, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, book authors, and so on. To borrow from DePree, our debts are deep.

Finally, consider what the gift of communication has meant for our relationships. Because we can communicate (same root word as “commune”) with one another, we are not relegated to loneliness. We can play and work with others. We can share jokes and joys, trials and tragedies, hopes and dreams. We can encourage and forgive, plan and practice everything from weddings to strategy meetings. We can define leadership with others and then seek together to live out our definition in service of others. And we can revise the definition as we go along.

Communication is a spectacular gift that we inherit from generation to generation and from organization to organization—even from conversation to conversation. To be the kind of leader whose heart is bathed in gratitude is to accept the most fitting beginning for a daily life of service—giving thanks. We know this deep in our hearts. This is why we all seek, even unconsciously, to be around thankful persons. We sense they are grateful for good things, including us. We want to be like them.

So a servant leader communicates with a sense of what Robert K. Greenleaf, the founder of Servant Leadership, calls “awe and wonder.” The leader’s communication begins and ends with heart-opening gratitude. In fact, I believe that gratitude is the missing first chapter in books about leadership and communication.

Does your communication reflect a grateful heart? Write down the names of two persons who passed along to you the gift of communication. Keep adding to the list as you review your notes in this book. Let your gratitude grow.

Click here to receive a free 35-page PDF excerpt of my latest book, Communicate Like a True Leader.

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