Leading with Gratitude: A Path to Becoming an Authentic Leader
By Philip Breitenbucher, M.S.W.
We all want to be happy. Many say or think things like, “I will be happy when” or “I would be happy if.” In Dr. Erin Smith’s blog post, Tackling anxiety with gratitude (August 2020), she says, “Reflecting on what we have to be grateful for reminds us that beyond the difficulties of the present moment, there is life-giving hope, purpose, relationship, love, and acceptance.” Lots of people struggle with a lack of gratitude. As students and soon to be professionals, I want to encourage you to be grateful for the present and be thankful for what God has planned for you because it will bring you joy and happiness beyond anything material.
After only three months of receiving my MSW (master of social work), I was promoted to a county leadership position in the field of public child welfare. My experience was not unique. We often hear from our graduates that they quickly promote into leadership positions within their organizations. In fact, anyone working in the field of behavioral and social sciences will eventually fill a leadership role. Whether that looks like leading a team or leading a group or even leading on a task, we all find ourselves needing to lead, and the question is, “how will you lead?”
As a young twenty-something propelled into a leadership role working in the 11th largest county in the nation, I found myself often leading from a place of fear. I was fearful that I would not have all the answers. I was fearful that I would not be respected by the very experienced and talented individuals I was put “in-charge” of. Because of these fears, I tended to lead using a very directive style, uninterested in the personal lives of my subordinates (who I now refer to as “teammates” and the literature refers to as “followers” or “tribe” members). However, fear is not the best motivator when it comes to daily work because at the heart of fear is doubt, and doubt leads to uncertainty, and uncertainty kills motivation.
Along the way, I was introduced to a style of leadership called Situational Leadership, developed by Hersey and Blanchard. Situational leadership requires a person to adapt their style to the demands of different situations, depending on the employee’s competence and commitment. Situational leadership consists of two types of behavior patterns, directive behaviors (establishing goals and methods, setting timelines, defining roles, etc.) and supportive behaviors (asking for input, solving problems, praising, sharing information about oneself, and listening) (Northouse, 2019). As you could imagine, I was very comfortable using directive behavior, but I also effectively solved problems and asked for input. Using situational leadership, I became an excellent manager and administrator, and I promoted up the ladder. I was even recruited to direct several national initiatives on behalf of the federal government. Once again, filled with fear and feelings of inadequacies (maybe a touch of imposter syndrome as described by Dr. Krystal Hays in her blog, Finding my way home: A journey through social work (April 2020), but I knew how to layout goals and objectives, set timelines, and monitor progress.
In 2013, my life suddenly was changed forever. I became a father for the first time (I now have two daughters), which changed my identity. I was not just a professional, but I was a father of a beautiful daughter who I wanted to talk about. I found myself in meetings talking about my girls and sharing stories with others about their kids. Suddenly, my followers began to see me as a supportive leader.
While situational leadership is instrumental, one of the potential drawbacks is that it calls for leaders to use low supportive behaviors with highly committed and competent followers. As stated by Northouse (2019), leaders refrain from intervening with unnecessary social support. Using situational leadership early in my career was helpful, but it had limits and confinements. With this new identity as a father, I learned more and more about each follower and began to delegate and empower others. I was genuinely committed to achieving the organization’s goals and helping my followers achieve their purposes. I was transforming into an authentic leader.
Authentic leadership is genuine and real and requires the authenticity of leaders (Northouse, 2019). Authentic leadership, developed by Bill George (2003), focuses on five characteristics: having a real sense of purpose, understanding one’s own values, developing strong relationships, having self-discipline, and being compassionate. According to the literature, becoming an authentic leader is a developmental process. It relies heavily on an individual’s critical life events (such as having children), which stimulates growth in four psychological capacities: confidence, hope, optimism, and resilience.
In the book “Leading with gratitude: Eight leadership practices for extraordinary business results,” Gostick and Elton (2020) discuss the benefits of genuine praise and gratefulness. They found that 98% of employees said they perform at a higher level when provided with encouragement. As a developing leader, I found connecting with my followers authentically, delivering specific validation and gratitude for their work, improved their performance, and built morale and motivation within the team. Gostick and Elton (2020) state, “those of us who innately feel more gratitude are also better able to connect with those around them, make ethical decisions and be more sympathetic” (p.57). Dr. Smith (August 2020) describes the psychological benefits of being thankful and expressing gratefulness for the individual. I, too found, that gratefulness not only improved my performance it also enhanced my well-being.
As a new leader or an experienced leader, I encourage you to give gratefulness a chance. The trick is to be brave and authentic no matter what the critics (internal and external) say.
Here are a baker’s dozen of ways to develop a grateful life (Gostick and Elton, 2020)
- Make a commitment to give undivided attention to your loved ones
- Have three things for dinner
- Be excited to see them
- Give immediate feedback to family members
- Give them a break
- Be more grateful to your partner
- Practice random gratitude
- Be grateful for obstacles
- Teach your kids to give
- Serve together
- Smell the roses
- Thank the cranks
- Write letters of gratitude
About the Author:
Philip Breitenbucher has over 20 years of progressively responsible experience in the management of public child welfare and community-based prevention services. Professor Breitenbucher currently serves as an assistant professor of social work in the Department of Social Work, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at California Baptist University. In addition, Professor Breitenbucher serves as research associate for the Center for the Study of Human Behavior. Professor Breitenbucher is currently pursuing an educational doctorate in Organization Leadership.
Hays, K. (2020, April 15). Finding my way Home: A Journey through Social Work (Part II). Center for the Study of Human Behavior. https://blogs.calbaptist.edu/cshb/2020/04/15/finding-my-way-home-a-journey-through-social-work-part-ii/
Gostick, A., & Elton, C. (2020). Leading with gratitude: Eight leadership practices for extraordinary business results.Harper Business.
Northhouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed.) Sage.
Smith, S. (2020, August 24). Tackling Anxiety with Gratitude. Center for the Study of Human Behavior. https://blogs.calbaptist.edu/cshb/2020/08/24/tackling-anxiety-with-gratitude/