Is there a Relationship Between Authentic and Grateful Leadership?

The Gratitude Connection

By Donald Officer


“He not busy being born is busy dying…”

Bob Dylan, from the song “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”*


For a long time, people equated management with leadership. The only real debate among executives was whether to use a carrot or a stick approach to motivate workers. Carrots included wages and benefit packages; sticks took the shape of critical performance reviews, demotions, and dismissals. Most employers combined both approaches as circumstances seemed to warrant. The idea that employees would seek meaning or purpose beyond this simple framework sounded naïve or foreign. Bosses were likewise trapped by the rules of this limiting game.


A few definitions are in order: leadership – the guiding (not commanding or coercing) of a group; authentic leadership – a leadership style in which people act in a genuine and sincere way true to who they are in pursuit of a passionately held purpose shared with their leader; grateful leadership – recognizing and expressing gratitude for the contributions of employees, colleagues, and others for their contributions and ongoing passionate engagement in a heartfelt authentic way. See: Wikipedia, Authentic Leadership by Bill George and Grateful Leadership by Judith Umlas. We strive to become authentic leaders if we desire to avoid stagnation, isolation and psychological death. Grateful leadership is an essential part of our rescue from that sorry end.


More recently, the idea of individuals taking direct ownership of their work itself or ‘job crafting’ has moved workplace motivation ideas beyond the transactional model.  When tested by psychologists, the concept proved effective as an engagement practice. Researchers also saw tiered levels of commitment from job to career to calling which better characterized the individual worker than earlier portrayals of everyone as interchangeable and unidimensional. Appreciating individuality at work is a big step towards grateful leadership.


Moving from the ranks to management can prove hard to do successfully. Executive consultant and author Marshall Goldsmith nailed the challenge when he titled his 2008 book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. What Goldsmith, a renowned executive coach, and many others like him underscore is that the first stage of any successful career is aimed at a form of competence which the second stage diverges sharply away from. Stage one is mastering your craft, the foundation of your career, confidence, and credibility. But stage two is political. When you enter the second stage of your career path you need to persuade, compromise, cooperate or take a stand on issues every day. All while maintaining your integrity. There is overlap in roles of course, but when you are at stage one, interactive issues have little direct impact on your responsibilities.


*Note by the author of this article:

Dylan released the song this quote comes from in the sixties, so this line has always sharply demonstrated the sharply defined opposition between slow death and transformative change – at least for his generation.




So, we have two kinds of capacity we already know we must attend to: mastering processes and working with others. When you aspire to be a leader the second phase overshadows. Managers must concentrate on working with others. Continuing to pursue mastery, or appearing to might bring you into conflict with others you must cooperate


with while competing for resources. Conflict often overwhelms individuals, organizations or whole societies. We get caught up in a struggle to complete competing tasks in competition for scarce resources.


Instead, as Center for Positive Organizations co-founder at Michigan University Robert Quinn has been writing for over 25 years, we need to look at our purpose for doing what we do. Starting with his book Deep Change, he has persistently addressed what he believes is the biggest threat to our flourishing future. Normal is neither healthy nor acceptable; normal is slow death.


A fundamental observation Quinn makes in books like Building the Bridge as You Walk on It is that task completion, the perennial metric of organizational success misses the mark. Apart from the burden of overload, grinding it out fails to account for the larger meaning and the real importance of your relationships to what you do. Professor Quinn and his colleagues want us to look beyond stage two to a third stage. Competence without purpose and politics that only compromises and accommodates only lead to slow death – personal and organizational. The only way to escape the overwhelming gravity of normality is to transform ourselves.


Human beings like most, if not all living things, are programmed from the cell level on up to seek the familiar. This strategy works almost all the time to conserve energy, avoid unfamiliar risks and pursue successful survival strategies. Unfortunately, there are times when rapid adaptation is vital. Today’s organization will not be tomorrow’s if it isn’t oriented to constant change and agile adaptation. Instead, we will find ourselves like the millions of animals who survived the catastrophic fires that recently engulfed Australia. Territorial by nature they now have no home, no viable source of food to return to. The instincts which kept them close to the environments with which they co-evolved, now drive them to certain starvation – to slow death.


Here is what is so vitally important about grateful leadership. Human communities are not bound by genetic programming or locale like other living creatures. With gratitude they enter the “fundamental state of leadership” as Robert Quinn describes it, committed to a liberating transformation , of themselves, their teams, their organizations, even the world. A core part of the covenant is embodying gratitude for those you depend on and who depend on you. Acknowledge whoever you work or live with. People are only fully empowered when gratitude is clearly, regularly expressed by their leaders. This, not policy drives transformative change.


Your great plans, goals or vision do not mark you as an authentic leader essential though those may be. It is who you are, who you are intent on becoming that transforms your leadership. By sharing and selflessly giving, starting with your own circle, you authentically, gratefully lead, build confidence, adaptability and resilience. Be who you would become, not what your title says you are and practice positive deviance as they say at the Center for Positive Organizations.


James Clear explains in Atomic Habits, how and why the path of consistency, essentially becoming closer to who you can be, is never easy. Existing habits — either learned or instinctual — abhor change. Remember authentic gratitude rarely starts with a “eureka moment.” Instead it is built by making valued practices habitual despite resistance from within and without. Your secret weapon is the heartfelt response of those you reach out to which then motivates you. Positive reactions are never guaranteed. Suspicion and distrust tend to linger. You appreciate, however, that positive feedback to your positive deviance happens often and sincerely enough to keep you going. Keep at it and become the grateful leader you were destined to be.


What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.





What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.