Proving Why What Never Happens Doesn’t

The Gratitude Connection

By Donald Officer

Summary by Harry Waldron: Dan Heath, Duke University, recently published “Upstream” in 2020.  His latest book shares a proactive approach, that is designed to prevent firefighting problems in the business world. The concepts in this rare book can revitalize the workplace and even make our world a better place. And as shared in the review below, Grateful Leadership concepts can help lead projects & people more effectively and proactively.  For example, the 5 “C’s” helps prevent “sparks” from flaring up as major “fires” which must be put out later.  This is a great modern book of leadership for the new decade ahead

Try to leave this world a little better than you found it.

~ Robert Baden-Powell

Dan Heath is well known as a straight-forward but astute observer of what it takes to get things done. Over the last 13 years, with his brother Chip he has written and published a series of books that address the leverage (or pain) points everyone encounters. The earlier Heath titles include: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die…; Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard; Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work; and The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. All these titles are great reads and come with free online thoughtful resource kits designed to make the lessons of these key leverage points improve yours and everyone else’s chances of success.

The Heath library builds a stairway to better futures with each successive title. Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, Dan’s sixth book which was released earlier this year, is a culmination of work to date – not to preclude the importance of the next life-changing idea now in research. All the Heath books are founded on a recognizably sound interpretation of grateful leadership. Gratitude, as David de Steno writes in Emotional Success, is about reimagining the past and present in order to create a better more satisfying future for all.

And what is leadership at its best if not striving to help others move away from the problematic and turbulent? And best of all, is it not about finding ways to circumvent both looming and distant disaster before things spiral down the drain?

As our CGL members know, grateful leadership requires every one of the five Cs: Consciousness, Choice, Courage, Communication, and Commitment to stay the course. Taking the Upstream route will likewise demand all five of those plus grit and resilience over time. Why is that? If you haven’t noticed, we live in a society that favors bold immediate action delivering praise and sometimes headlines. We certainly do need to recognize timely action and openly acknowledge selfless courage. However, should we not also acknowledge the thoughtful, early intervention which avoids emergencies and goes unnoticed if we fail to show fulsome gratitude?

The upstream approach avoids the conflict, complexity, and confusion which we say in public we are opposed to. In private, we may find those three angry Cs give us the grudging if perverse satisfaction of doing something. Illustrating the paradox, Dan Heath cites the example of Jimmy Carter who sought a solution in the 1970s to an already longstanding concern over illegal immigration. After completing his research, the president proposed investing heavily in Mexican economic development to make immigration unattractive. This upstream proposal became a priority that quickly went nowhere. Even those who approved of the idea were only lukewarm about it. It was hard to be satisfied with an indirect long-term upstream answer. Maybe, if Carter had developed upstream initiatives appealing to voters, he’d have enjoyed a second term.

Heath devotes the first section of his book to the three biggest barriers he believes impede upstream thinking and follow through. The first is problem blindness. Put simply, we see what we look for. Leaders can find themselves stymied by an organizational culture that opposes or stigmatizes what seems like an obvious damage prevention strategy. The answer often lies in a reconfiguration of responsibility, loyalty and identity. If the leader explains that being responsible for altering an unfair or outmoded directive is not about accepting blame for it, but rather about accepting the challenge to change it, reframing becomes possible, even desirable. Wearing a seatbelt is no longer an infringement of liberty.

The reframing strategy also forms part of how to overcome a lack of ownership, the second barrier to upstream ideas. “Somebody should do something,” we say so often when we feel no urge to do it ourselves. With so many major or minor infractions happening all about us, we know we can’t fix the whole hot mess. But that’s how we miss the chance to actually make a difference when our expertise, our access to resources, and yes, our own proximity to the problem could be engaged if we didn’t permit ourselves to stand aside.

Sometimes we really are committed, have the courage of conviction, conscious awareness, made the choice to take action, and unequivocally communicated our honest intentions, yet still, we blunder into burnout and failure. What happened? We demonstrated gratitude and the stuff of leadership. This upstream obstacle is more about the process. Heath calls it tunneling and it is often seen in situations where we fail to recognize the complications of mounting overload or the complexities of other people’s positions. Or it could be plain workaholism.

The answer to this last obstacle, and to all three of them to an extent, is the same kind of generous imagination that leads upstream leaders to upstream mindsets, to begin with. If you endorse the upstream idea, you must also buy into upstream processes. You probably have allies you never thought of or reservoirs of trust in yourself, your vision, and yes, your team. If you are a grateful upstream leader you will recall these strengths and remember success isn’t about showing off your inner superhero, but about avoiding errors or traps that could tragically undermine your goals as a grateful leader.

Avoiding the obstacles that prevent anyone from going upstream is one thing. Carrying it off is another. Fortunately, adopting and maintaining the grateful upstream leader mindset that helps you appreciate your better choices is more than half the battle. The next steps are guided by adequate answers to seven questions according to Dan Heath: Good enough answers to keep upstream goals from being derailed. The first question is about uniting the right people. Who could best recognize the underlying problem? Who cares about it most? Who has the expertise and foresight to avoid or reverse missteps? The author gives us some great real-life examples ranging from underage drinking in Iceland to family violence in New England where the criteria were envisioned or discovered later.

The upstream leader might have to change the system to succeed. A frontal assault is not usually the best approach unless there is a proven groundswell of evidence and popular support. Sometimes the change that works is actually more of a tweak. We are cognitive misers, the psychologists tell us, which would be amusing if the consequences of careless habits were not so tragic. Therefore, an upstream leader asks how a better way could be made inviting.

The nudge strategy is an avenue behavioral economists recommend which displays elements of upstream thinking. The upstream philosophy is deliberately in play when leaders seek to discover points of leverage.  We might become happily compliant if filling out tax forms was turned into a game. No? Perhaps some leverage points demand greater effort.

A more serious example of diversion which Heath describes in detail concerns a school intervention program in Chicago neighborhoods were dropping out and joining gangs was a stubborn trend. By supporting at-risk students in the challenging ninth grade, drop out and gang recruitment rates were reduced significantly. Similarly, upstream health care strategies that involve scheduling more doctor-patient time with the elderly and health compromised, promotes more effective (and cost-effective) self-care. These, of course, are changes at scale, similar to but much more than nudges.

Some indicators are needed to justify the upstream activity. Accountants and auditors always look for something to measure which is harder to find when catastrophic failure is not on the horizon. The upstream leader works in unexplored territory, so distant early warning systems need to be on alert as do measures that spotlight all signs of improvement. Expect surprises as with any innovative process although more of them will be positive than not. As with the foundational oath taken by all physicians, the upstream leader vows to do no harm while staying watchful. Remember too, if you aspire to upstream leadership, some bean counters will object reflexively to paying for what doesn’t happen regardless of strong positive correlations.

These are the downsides of any kind of innovation which Dan Heath emphasizes we must learn from. Upstream tactics do not necessarily scale and sometimes create unintended side effects when the old order shifts. Change always has enemies. The upstream leader might find time to consider the distant and improbable, an unaffordable luxury in more reactive situations. Upstream leaders avoid the resistance that comes with downstream tactics, but really, we have already paid untold costs leaving huge IOUs by not looking upstream when we had the chance.

Be proactive then, even if the world only sees you as a passive, no drama actor standing in the wings. Frequently, the grateful upstream leader, being less pressured day to day, may be permitted adventurous excursions even further upstream to find new opportunities to build greater stores of success and gratitude. That’s a private but deeply rewarding victory.


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.