We all know something about gratitude. Philosophers have written about it and our modern-day lifestyle gurus keep harping on it. We have even read that it has the power to move mountains and bring tranquillity into our lives. But the world we live in, dominated as it is by social media platforms that shape our responses, there is no escape from the roller-coaster of emotions that we experience while reading about or witnessing the “success” and “happiness” of others – negative emotions like anger, bitterness, hatred, and jealousy-driven competitiveness. However much we try not to, we are also responsible for strengthening the dog-eat-dog culture and believing in one-upmanship, living under false notions of superlative self-worth.

Slowing down and expressing gratitude to others is difficult because this “softer” quality of being thankful falls between the cracks of our busy lives and remains as a philosophical response tough to practice. Some people are exceptions, of course, but they are few.

Gratitude, after all, is not merely a cursory “thank you,” the expression we use perhaps as a courtesy dozens of times in a day. It’s much deeper than that – it is an appreciation for someone or something that produces lasting positivity in both, the benefactor and the receiver.

In his book Emotional First Aid, Dr Guy Winch says, “Gratitude is an emotion that grounds us and is a great way to balance out the negative mindset that uncertainty engenders. When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin – two hormones that make us feel lighter and happier inside.”

Being grateful is thus an emotional state of mind – guided by the affective–cognitive drivers of humble leaders – that acts as a reminder to them about how far they have come and how far they need to go. It also reminds them of the contributions and support of other people that got them this far and could take them further, personally and professionally.

In short, gratitude is a social emotion that acknowledges – and signals – our recognition of what others have done for us. It is this quality that keeps humble leaders grounded and rooted. It works in a different way too: when humility is at their core, leaders become aware of the contribution of others, however small that might be, and make them express their gratitude. Whatever form it is expressed in – a smile, a pat on the shoulder, or words of appreciation – the receiver too feels the genuine positive intentions of the leader. Gratitude thus becomes a form of communication, with the power to move the most hard-nosed people and to get things going with the right momentum.

In contrast, those who lack humility revolve in a circle of negativity, trapped in their feelings of selfishness, envy, cynical rivalry, and narcissism that feed off each other. The result is there for everybody to see – inauthentic behaviour that erupts in a bubble of superficiality.

It’s not that humble leaders never experience these negative emotions. They do, but to a much lesser degree because of their focus on others. They put others ahead of themselves, as we discussed in the previous chapters. Gratitude for any contribution others make, therefore, comes more naturally to them as their innate humility allows them to see matters from a perspective different from their own. That, in turn, contributes to the emotional well-being of all concerned, as gratitude helps bind people together.

This is what author–philosopher Robert C Solomon wrote in the foreword to The Psychology of Gratitude: “being capable of and expressing gratitude is not only a virtue but part and parcel of the good life. It is not just an acknowledgement of debt and an expression of humility but is also a way to improve one’s life.”

According to a white paper written for the John Templeton Foundation by Summer Allen, more grateful people were, in general, “happier, more satisfied with their lives, less materialistic, and less
likely to suffer from burnout.” Elsewhere in the paper “The Science of Gratitude,” the writer says, “It’s possible that more grateful parents are more likely to observe gratitude in their children because they are more attuned to it – this study may also suggest that parents can succeed in attempts to socialise their children to be more grateful.”

Soumitra Bhattacharya, president and managing director, Bosch India, puts it succinctly while giving his own example of how parents instil values and positive feelings like gratitude in their children. “When I look back, I have to look back at my own journey. And, in my journey, what I was very fortunate to have [were] some very basic characteristics which my parents indirectly ingrained in me,” Bhattacharya said. “I learnt those values on reflection, especially because they were not directly told to me.”

“Ingrained” is the word here, because gratitude sits easy in humble leaders and is expressed not just in their words but in their actions too. Their sense of gratefulness – the acknowledgement that things might have been less pleasant – and their inherent understanding of the transient nature of power and authority, make them feel contented. And a contented person has not much to complain about.

“Nearly a decade of research by Dr Robert Emmons – the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude – and others has found that people who have regular gratitude practices are healthier, happier, and have better relationships,” says International and TEDx Speaker Christopher Littlefield in his piece “Use Gratitude to Counter Stress and Uncertainty” for Harvard Business Review. “Further research suggests that gratitude is also key in helping individuals and teams persevere in challenging tasks.”

Let’s now explore how gratitude works at the organisational level.

Gratitude among humble leaders has three components or attributes:

• Responsible behaviour in good times and bad times
• Celebration of success
• Universal acknowledgement

The Power of Humility: How Humble High Achievers Are Rewriting the Rules of Leadership

Excerpted with permission from The Power of Humility: How Humble High Achievers Are Rewriting the Rules of Leadership, PV Ramana Murthy, HarperCollins.