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November 27, 2013

A Heart of Gratitude

by Chris Lindholm


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for many reasons, but mostly because  it disciplines me to pause and reflect on the incredible number of reasons I have to be grateful.  We live in a culture that seems to be focused on magnifying all that is wrong in the world – after all, a good dramatic “oh no” sells newspapers a whole lot better than a flowery story about a church serving meals.  This holiday on the other hand, is an annual opportunity to accept that we decide how to approach each day, and it challenges us as a nation to choose to be grateful.  Indeed the holiday season can be a time of raw emotions for those grieving a loss in their family or for those who have family members missing from the dinner table.  This day however, is about disciplining ourselves to focus on all that we should say thank you for.  While we honor our individual and collective struggles, we pause on this holiday to make ourselves see the brighter side of life, to choose to be grateful, and to celebrate the simplest of treasures.  It is in the disciplined process of making ourselves see what we have to be grateful for that we develop a healthy heart of gratitude, and like most people, I need the reminder of this holiday to improve my own “gratitude health.”

Possibly because I am in a new leadership role this year, I’ve been  reflecting a bit on how the discipline to cultivate a Screen shot 2013-11-27 at 8.40.31 AMtrue heart of gratitude applies to organizations and communities as it does to individuals.  Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves‘ recent book Professional Capital beautifully argues that the influence of the collective (at team, a school culture, a church culture, etc…) far outweighs the influence of the individual when it comes to improving performance.  In other words, an average teacher who joins a top-notch teaching team nearly always becomes a much better instructor over time while an excellent teacher who joins a sub par team rarely creates significant team improvement without very intentional leadership and professional development processes.  The power of the collective is enormous and thus leaders must focus on social capital to make significant improvements as opposed to a tight focus on the individual and individual accountability.

So how do the concepts in Professional Capital apply to leading an organization to cultivate a heart of gratitude?  Top notch education leaders recognize that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and they have the responsibility to create an organizational culture that drives meaningful improvement.   It doesn’t happen by hiring one superstar or by bringing in a motivational speaker.  It happens by calling organizational culture out as a controllable variable that is measured, monitored and addressed through continuous improvement work.  Leaders (at all levels) have the responsibility to facilitate processes for confronting the brutal facts and for driving collaborative efforts to improve those results/facts.   Most often those efforts focus on improving our processes and our structures resulting in improved organizational culture.  All of this leads to the Thanksgiving question:  Does our school district have a strong “heart of gratitude?”   Where might we fall on the “gratitude health” index??

While I don’t know the honest answer to that question at this point, I do believe Parker Palmer’s recent book Healing the Heart of Democracy offers some insights about how we can work towards improving our “gratitude health.”  The book and study materials point out 5 habits of the heart that are necessary for a healthy democracy and I would argue, a healthy school and/or organizational culture.  The 5 habits of heart include:

  • Recognizing that we’re all in this together
  • Appreciation of “otherness”
  • Holding tension in creative, life-giving ways
  • Having a sense of voice and agency
  • Developing capacity to create community

This Thanksgiving holiday I am especially grateful for the people I work with who demonstrate these 5 habits in their professional work and in their community involvement.  High functioning teams and communities indeed have to be able to disagree and hold tensions in a way that makes the relationships – and the team performance – stronger.  Here is a clip from Palmer on the second habit – appreciating otherness:

So how is the “gratitude health” of your organization or community?  How do you monitor it and intentionally work to improve it?  Can we achieve creating a culture in which we appreciate – are grateful for – the perspectives of those we disagree with?  I know Palmer believes it’s possible for our country as his social movement work has demonstrated a tenacious commitment to this cause since publishing the book.  I’m committed to doing my part as the leader of a school district.  How about you?  How can you cultivate the 5 habits in your organization or community?

Read more from ISD 186, Leadership

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