Project Practitioners > Book Review: Grateful Leadership

Book Review: Grateful Leadership

By DeAnna Burghart

Grateful Leadership, by Judy Umlas
When did you last acknowledge someone? I don't mean a simple thank you, but a sincere, "mushy" expression of appreciation and admiration, a "heartfelt and authentic communication that lets people know their value to their organization or to their team and the importance of the contribution they make?" Judith Umlas is betting that it's been far too long, and that you should start right now.

The title of Umlas's recent book Grateful Leadership suggests appreciation and an "attitude of gratitude," the sort of catch phrases that have become ubiquitous in a business leadership field dominated by admonitions to Lean In and Drive. Skeptics and cynics might dismiss Grateful Leadership as just another self-help book. That would be a shame, as they would miss out on an earnest and enlightening discussion of the value of truly appreciating those around you. (Disclosure: I know Judy and have worked with her on other, unrelated projects -- including her recent release You're Totally Awesome: The Power of Acknowledgment for Kids, which is full of great stories. But I digress ...)

Umlas has an informal, personal style and speaks directly to the reader from her own copious experience in this field. Her ideas may not be revolutionary, but her unbridled enthusiasm for them is. She is unashamed and relentless in urging the reader to express the appreciation so many of us leave unspoken. In Part 1, she builds her case with familiar evidence about turnover and retention, and how much is lost when a valued employee takes their talents elsewhere. But she also personalizes those statistics with startling anecdotes -- some prompted by her previous book, The Power of Acknowledgment. The combination paints a compelling background for her thesis: Grateful leaders build better relationships, get better results, inspire loyalty, and feel better themselves into the bargain. And the author is more than happy to back up her ideas.

Grateful Leadership provides examples on both individual and corporate scales. Drawing from examples as varied as Southwest Airlines, Honda, Whole Foods, and her corner coffee shop, Umlas describes the real, lasting effects of genuine acknowledgment. Counter examples like Steve Jobs' infamously demanding style are acknowledged (see what I did there?) as the exceptions that prove the rule -- such intense "motivation" generally only works, she says, when its recipients (read "targets") are also getting external validation and appreciation from another source -- in this case, the market.

After making her case, Umlas lays out her "5Cs" of acknowledgment -- consciousness, choice, courage, communication, and commitment -- as a framework and foundation for creating a pervasive culture of acknowledgment. Then, Part 2 of Grateful Leadership lays out seven principles outlining the benefits for the one acknowledging and the one acknowledged. She encourages readers to start practicing acknowledgment with relative strangers, to get used to the deep and fully expressed appreciation her definition of acknowledgment implies. (Examples throughout, but especially in Chapter 6, illustrate this difference.)

Finally, Part 3 provides stories and profiles of grateful leaders in action, as well as discussions of the use and impact of acknowledgment in more reticent cultures like Scandinavia and East Asia. The portraits -- some downright emotional -- provide both inspiration and models of behavior, as well as specific examples of short, sincere acknowledgments and their rewards. The appendices continue this practical treatment with examples and exercises, and a 360-assessment of current behavior and acknowledgment approach in the reader's organization.

This book is not a detailed treatise of management philosophy or motivational theory, which is good, because there are plenty of those books on the market already. (Several are cited in the bibliography.) Rather, Umlas focuses on persuasion and a not-so-quiet encouragement to give voice to the gratitude people usually leave unspoken. Overall, Grateful Leadership is likely to resonate with leaders who suspect they could be doing more to motivate their team, and with anyone trying to understand and combat a general sense of discontent and unhappiness in their environment. In Judy's words:

I maintain that much of the world's pain comes from people feeling that they are not good enough, smart enough, or rich enough. They believe they can never get enough of whatever it is they think they need in order to feel good about themselves. These negative feelings are what drive them to do things that make the world seem "broken." Changing just this one aspect of human behavior on a colossal scale might solve many problems.

At the very least, it's sure to make your team environment much more pleasant and productive.

Grateful Leadership: Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results
Judith W. Umlas
McGraw-Hill; 2012
ISBN: 978-0-07-179952-2

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