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/
Hi Philip Breitenbucher, first off I really enjoyed reading this as my current job requires me to be a good leader which is what caught my eye in to reading this. I run my own small business and my business requires me to develop other leaders under me and help myself and them team build. This posting helped me understand and realize what kind of leader I want to strive to be and that I want to teach others how to be a leader as well. It gave me great ideas on what I can do to improve and help myself become a great leader. Overall I believe anyone who wants to be a leader should read this it was a great read with many insights on leadership.
Second I just want to say still to this day you are hands down on my favorite professor list!!!
It’s so nice to hear from you. I am glad to hear that you found the blog useful in your current and future positions. I have no doubts you will become a great leader.
Hey Philip Breitenbucher,
I truly enjoyed reading your blog post. I wanted to start off by saying that you showed a lot of these leadership qualities while being a professor. This exemplified the fact that you have learned these types of styles and genuinely are caring of those you work with, or in this case your students. What first grabbed my attention was the title itself. As I have worked through my college degree, I have also been a part of an online company’s staff team too. As the months turned into years, I worked my way up the ladder and soon found myself in a leadership role, and this then becoming a job. This is where your blog became completely relatable and valuable to me. I appreciate the honesty you presented with how your leadership style progressed, and especially how your own life even impacted this change. This post and your own self-reflection forced me to reflect on the leadership style I have been using, and even to consider what leadership style I actually wanted to use. While I have been proud of myself for not just bossing people around, and genuinely caring for them, I definitely have a lot to work on in terms of my leading. This blog gave me an idea of how I can work on those aspects and even ensure I am showing my gratitude to those “under me”. I feel this would be beneficial for a lot of new managers to read, as there is no proper way to prepare for being a leader. You can learn how to be one, but when you actually become one it is a whole different scenario.
Thank you so much for your comments. I truly appreciate your reflections. You demonstrated excellent leadership traits in my course. Keep growing and developing those skills.
Professor Breitenbucher, I thank you for providing such detailed, encouraging insight on the intricacies of leadership that may not always be considered. At first glance, it may seem like “what does gratitude have to do with leadership?” However, understanding the connection between feeling and expressing gratitude will help inform our own leadership model and aid us in making the best choices from the right motivations. It also provides me with a sense of hope for working on being a good leader. One of your earlier statements about how leading from fear means leading from doubt, which will inevitably steal your motivation really opened my eyes on why leading others from a spirit of fear cannot ultimately work long term. Those of us in the behavioral and social sciences are very likely, as you said, to be placed in positions that will require us to guide or lead others. Because of this, I think it is imperative to begin the developmetal process of leadership in the healthiest, most successful way possible by making gratitude a key player in whatever method of leadership we adopt.
Thanks for your comments. I am glad you found the article helpful. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to lead with humility. By leading with humility and a clear mission to be of service erases any fear or doubt.
I am definitely one to say statements such as “I will be happy when” or “I would be happy if.” I had to learn the hard way that I was in charge of my own happiness, and I witness that the anxiety of seeking happiness stopped. Happiness comes from being grateful for what you already have in life and what you can do with it. I love your statement of being thankful for the present because I experienced horrible anxiety when I thought of my future. As soon as I focused on the present, the future no longer stressed me out. Authentic leadership arose when I became the leader of my negative outlook on life. I decided to shift the perspective to a positive one. It took time, but I can agree on how it requires having a real sense of purpose in the world to take leadership of your own life.
It’s interesting to see how you phrased being an authentic leader of oneself, something that I would not have imagined would be considered a leadership role. Thank you for sharing that perspective and sharing your story as well! It is inspiring!
Thank you for this wonderful post about gratefulness and being an effective leader. I have never connected the two and it is encouraging to see the success in authentic leadership. As a leader at my church, I am always looking for ways to improve and strengthen my leadership skills. Reading this post along with taking note of the essential skills to develop, I am more encouraged to lead and connect with the people I lead. Thank you for this inspiring encouragement!
Thank you for your comments. I am glad to hear that you found the article inspiring. We all continue to grow and develop, keep it up.
Hi Prof. Brietenbucher,
Your blog post was really inspirational and a breath of fresh air with this new take on leadership. Far too often we tend to think of leadership as being the way you first described it, being directive. Your example of leading from a place of fear and even self-inadequacy really resonated with me, as I have also experienced this while in a leadership role. I had never thought of leading with gratefulness, and understanding how doing so can improve both personal wellbeing and professional development was really eye-opening. The 13 examples of showing more gratefulness was really helpful as well, as it can often become easy to take for granted who and what we have, and lose sight of the “big picture”. Thank you for this really phenomenal post!
Thank you for reading! It is so nice to read that this blog resonating with you and that you found it helpful!
I have always been a “never settle” type of person and i believe this to be a strength. Understanding the connection between gratefulness and leadership has shown me that my “never settle” mentality could use some more work! Being more appreciative of the spot I am at will lead me to become a better person overall and essentially a better leader also.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Thank you for sharing your story about your personal growth and development in leadership. I really like the idea of authentic leadership. I believe the five characteristics you described can be used beyond the work environment. As I was reading, I was thinking of ways I could include and practice these leadership characteristics in my interactions at home with family and friends. I thank you for pointing out the importance of authenticity and how beneficial it is to be successful in working with others. I also appreciate your baker’s dozen ways to develop a grateful life. I often overlook the simple things to be grateful for.
Thank you for reading! I hope you have found ways to incorporate these leadership characteristics and ways to be grateful in your own life!
Hello Professor Phillip Breitenbucher,
In reading your blog, I resonated with much of what was discussed. I have been unwillingly placed in leadership positions in which I had no idea how to execute. I naturally gravitated towards situational leadership in which I developed the way I would lead based off of the environment/situation as in the title. The only setback in this is the way that it may come off as condescending in some cases. Reason being is that if it were to be attributed to a group setting, there may be many different levels of talent or experience towards a desired goal of the group, as a leader setting a universal goal or addressing the group as a whole may come off as belittling if a task is set to be easier/ desired goal. The benefit to situational leading in a group setting is that those who may be at a lower knowledge of a given situation still feels included. I know this from experience when it came to being the lead case manager with my work in ABA therapy. In terms of leading with gratitude, this is something I have always tried to attribute to any daily tasks in which I take part in. 1st Corinthians 16:14. This is my life motto/mantra so to speak. Having gratitude always has a positive not only on yourself but the worth of those around you. But having this attribute in the professional setting as a leader makes the work environment that much more enjoyable and exciting.
Concluding my rant, I believe that all leaders, unknowing future leaders and anyone hoping to work professionally should always integrate gratitude into their daily lives. This will automatically lift your spirits internally but those around you as gratitude is a contagious thing.
That being said, I really enjoyed reading a learning some new ideas off of your blog! Thank you for this piece.
Thank you for reading and sharing yours thoughts/personal experiences!