Few people have never said, “Thank you.” It isn’t a trivial phrase, by any stretch of the phrase. We say it in so many situations, like receiving a present from a loved one on our birthday or receiving change from the cashier at the grocery store. Despite the use of those same two words, its value changes across situations. For instance, consider its use as a response when someone sends their thoughts and prayers when you lose a loved one. Now consider its use in response to someone paying you $8 for rent when they land on Connecticut Avenue in Monopoly. But these are all differences in degree – for receiving something – of how we say, “Thank you.”

There are also differences in kind that point the gratitude in a specific direction, and that’s where we’ll focus. While gratitude is a valuable asset in anyone’s life, we’re going to explore why leaders should pay special attention. Mainly it’s because leadership implies followers. Otherwise you would just be standing in your office by yourself, which is usually where leaders without gratitude find themselves. Non-leaders can show gratitude for anything, but leaders should hyper-focus gratitude on their people.

Importance to Leadership

The primary reason to make gratitude a part of your leadership is well-being, and not just yours. Whatever your leadership style is, people look to their leaders for the climate of the organization (or at least that leader’s part). Is this ship heading into strong winds, winning the race, or sinking? The experience of gratitude – for the giver, that is – produces positive emotions, which directly affects physical and mental health. That, in turn, affects how the entire group feels, as a leader’s emotions are tied to their group’s performance[1]. When you take care of yourself, you simultaneously take better care of your team and provide a positive environment.

Another reason is that people speak different languages of appreciation. Gary Chapman and Paul White outlined five distinct languages in their book, aptly named The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it (and used an affiliate link to do so). The importance here is that by not focusing on gratitude, you revert to your default language as a giver. Unfortunately, that will only get you so far. In specifically recognizing someone else’s appreciation language, it’s unavoidable that you’ll get to know the person on a deeper level. The means are the end, and your leadership strengthens through the work you put into this gratitude training.

Lastly, you can show gratitude towards those who are here as well as those who are not. In the types of gratitude listed below, you’ll see that half of them are focused on what does not exist. That is telling about the dual-purpose of gratitude. Part of it is for the receiver, but part of it is for the giver.

Leadership is not achieved for a single moment inside a vacuum. Leadership exists on a continuum and should be viewed as such. Business school teachers – the good ones, anyway – don’t just teach what works today; they teach about the past and the future so that students can visualize what was and what might be, not just what is. Be a student of gratitude.

Types of Gratitude

  1. For what you lost. Gratitude must include what you once had because it will remind you of your control (and lack thereof). You may or may not have been the cause of someone leaving, but the focus should be on the existence of your experience while they were here (To note, leaving does not imply death; it’s just that they are no longer present in your life). Leaders can express this type of gratitude by making a list or sitting in quiet thought and thinking about each person. Alternatively, talking with others about what the person meant to you is a form of gratitude expression. Spending time each week focused on who you lost will solidify the foundation for the other three types of gratitude, especially the next one.
  2. For what you are about to lose. You may not always know when someone is leaving your life and that’s perfectly fine. With this type of gratitude, you have time, which is in the form of a countdown clock. To express this type of gratitude, it’s still effective to use the methods above, but you want to direct a fair portion of time with the actual receiver of the gratitude. This will help you when it moves to Type 1, where you have only your thoughts and feelings. Remember, expressing gratitude for a person should take their appreciation language into consideration.
  3. For what you have. This type encompasses everyone who (you can fairly assume) has no known expiration date. While everyone and every relationship eventually does expire, you aren’t expecting it anytime soon for these people. Without the countdown clock, it’s easier to be mindful in the present moment. Additionally, as these people have no expected end date, you will be making plans that count on them. Express gratitude by asking questions and actively listening to their answers. Show patience where you might otherwise show intolerance or irritation. You’ll be thinking about these choices when this person transitions through Type 2, or worse moves straight to Type 1.
  4. For what you’re about to have. This is related to Type 1 on our continuum but is perhaps the most important of the four. It includes people who will become part of your life but are not yet here. For a limited few, there are instances where you know who these people are; but most of the time for most of us, these people are unknown. Showing gratitude for unknown people may seem odd, but I assure you, it is quite necessary. This type will build your gratitude muscle. Sometimes people come into our life in such fleeting relationships, that we are reflect on them as Type 1 before we realize they were even in Type 3. Expression here should be vocal. You’re teaching others the importance of gratitude, as they see you express it for the future you haven’t created yet.

These forms of gratitude may not seem like rocket science to some, and for others, they might appear shallow. What you should remember is that your leadership is a continuum, so you will constantly have new people to occupy your attention. The key to these four types of gratitude is to organize your thoughts to better capture and express your gratitude. That is to say, you need focus the one million thoughts you have every day if you want to improve your leadership with gratitude.

Whatever day it is in your life, create space for gratitude and practice one type for a week. Then switch to another type the next week, and so on, until you’ve finished all four types. It can be for five minutes or an hour each day, whatever you have. Just remember, gratitude is not an accomplishment; it is a state of being. The objective is to live with gratitude, not get it over with.


[1] Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough. The psychology of gratitude. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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