With the Thanksgiving holiday fast approaching, I thought it appropriate to discuss gratitude. “Gratitude doesn’t come naturally,” says James Autry, Fortune 500 executive turned author and poet. “We have to learn it.”
We are not born grateful. Before it can grow beyond the polite “thank you,” I believe each of us must make our own journey to gratitude. That destination is the emotional result of a spiritual, not simply a social, process, Autry says. Achieving a sense of gratitude is not difficult, but it requires conscious attention.
Why is it so important to learn gratitude, not just voice it? Because at that deeper level, it is a business asset. In my experience, the single most troubling obstacle in family-owned business succession planning is that appreciation, recognition and love are so rarely expressed. Fathers in family businesses secretly are looking for this validation of appreciation, but will deny to their dying day that they need it or care about it.
All generations can share in this lack of appreciation and recognition. Adult children in a business family love their parents, but often fail to express thankfulness for what their parents have done to help them be successful. Parents can take their adult children for granted by failing to express appreciation for their commitment to the business. They have not realized that living in gratitude is a choice, and what Alexis de Tocqueville might call a “habit of the heart.” Living in gratitude becomes a way of life, as it became for me.
Medieval theologian, philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.” According to the late author Angeles Arrien, gratitude is “a feeling that spontaneously emerges from within. However, it is not simply an emotional response, it is also a choice we make.”
Gratitude is a critical ingredient in strong relationships. In families, in friendships, in working relationships, gratitude is the glue that holds people and groups together. Teamwork, in my opinion, is a way to put gratitude into action.
Within business families, gratitude is a secret ingredient that can raise a company above competitors, beyond the routine and through difficulty. It can be as easy as practicing or showing that you appreciate employees and working family members. But it must be practiced, not “performed”—that is, it must come from the heart. It should represent real gratitude, not just a placating “atta boy.” However, the occasional, off-the-cuff genuine response is priceless.
As I write this, I’m reminded of a wonderful family business client of mine who recently passed away. I’ll call him Gratian, which is Latin for “grateful.” Gratian began to work in his family’s business when he was quite young, just after his own father had died. Gratian provided the leadership to help his uncles and brothers transform the company. Eventually Gratian bought out his relatives and transferred the business to his two adult children. Through all of these transitions there could have been chaos, disappointment, disagreement and discord. Instead, because of Gratian’s honesty, integrity and loyalty—his gratitude—the family never wavered and the company never faltered. This philosophy of gratitude has carried over to his son, who now runs the company, as he builds on his father’s legacy of gratitude by how he treats the employees.
But in looking back, what I marvel at the most is that Gratian taught himself to be grateful; he “wasted” work time to meditate or pray. Each day he took a break from his busy schedule for a personal moment in his office. He was counting his blessings and appreciating his family. And that made all the difference.
Make this Thanksgiving one of the greatest by creating your gratitude inventory. Take a moment each day to individually thank in your mind the people whom you love and who love you: your spouse, parents, each child, a great friend, a close work associate, a partner, a person who altered your life. These brief moments accumulate into a sense of gratitude that you will learn to express. Your gratitude will grow, and it will become as natural as breathing. It fills your life with thankfulness for what you have, unconcerned with what you don’t have.
Tom Hubler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Hubler for Business Families, a family business consulting firm.