A Servant and a Debtor

Card you envelope thank nobody copy paperAccording to Max DePree, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.”

Most leaders understand that part of their job is to define reality for their organizations and, at least as we approach Thanksgiving, will pause to say thanks to their staff. However, many of us in positions of leadership would do well to consider how we could redouble our efforts in the middle — by focusing on being a servant and a debtor in our organizations.

If the first thought that popped into your head after reading that last sentence was that you are too busy for all that warm and fuzzy stuff . . . that it might sound good but you need to make sure there is a clear return on investment for your efforts . . . I would simply point out that you might be surprised at how small actions on your part can have a significant impact on the culture of your organization, and its ultimate success. What exactly do I mean by small actions?

Ask your people for their opinion, and then really listen to what they have to say. So often as leaders, we listen to respond, to make a case for our position, rather than to hear what our people are thinking. You might be surprised at what you learn when you listen to hear. As an added bonus, your staff can tell the difference, and they feel valued when you truly seek their opinion.

Make it your priority to help your staff, rather than just expecting them to help you. When you help your staff — whether by removing barriers, helping them tackle a problem, or finding ways to make their job easier — you create reciprocal energy that ultimately moves the organization forward. Really . . . it is not all about you and your goals.

Take a few minutes each day —not just at Thanksgiving — to say thanks. It won’t take a lot of time, I promise. Noticing and acknowledging a person’s effort virtually guarantees you will see more of that behavior. Even better, take two minutes and send a hand-written note. Such simple yet uncommon actions leave a lasting impression. (Ever saved a note that you received?)

Those suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Help clean up after an event . . . call or text someone to let them know you have their back . . . laugh with people . . . model organizational values . . . you get the idea. Long term, your people probably won’t remember this quarter’s goals. They will remember how you supported their efforts . . . as a debtor and a servant. And you will have even more reasons to give thanks.

Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart


On this day before Thanksgiving, it is of course a time to reflect on what we are grateful for — and for many of us, family and friends top the list. But do we, and individuals and leaders, truly recognize, deep down inside, how blessed we are?

I’ll never forget a Thanksgiving celebration with a gym full of hungry souls listening to a youth choir when a young girl, probably about 10 years old, stepped up to the mic and, her lone voice strong and clear, sang “Give Thanks With a Grateful Heart.” This child had experienced more pain and suffering in her young life than many of us will ever know and yet, on that day, her sincere expression of thanks humbled everyone in the room. I want to be that kind of grateful.

The challenges of being a leader today cannot be denied. Ever-changing regulations, economic and financial volatility, business models that are no longer sustainable, never mind personnel challenges … feel free to add your own crisis du jour. Serious? Quite possibly. Something you have to deal with? Absolutely. Overwhelming? That depends. If you spend all your time staring at the challenges before you, it may feel that way. If you compare them to the many blessings you enjoy, maybe not so much.

How you think about things — the context in which you view them — determines their impact on your life. And the things you focus on most, grow in your minds eye. I don’t know about you, but from where I’m sitting that’s a pretty good argument for focusing on the things for which you are grateful. As a leader, you have a special responsibility in this area because your focus also becomes your people’s focus. Think back to a time when you were especially stressed … I’m guessing your people soon started mirroring your anxiety. Likewise, when you’re cruising on all cylinders it’s amazing how much your organization can accomplish.

I’m not suggesting you become a Pollyanna leader or ignore the difficult things before you. I am suggesting that in the midst of those things you also recognize the many gifts and graces you have been given to tackle such issues head on … creativity, a can-do spirit, a strong and diverse team, individuals outside your organization who are willing to lend a hand (feel free to add to the list.) When viewed through the lens of a grateful heart, “oh poor me” melts away and is replaced by a spirit of “we’ll figure it out.” That is the quiet confidence that comes with a grateful heart. Think of where our world would be if more of us approached our roles with that perspective.

So that is my wish for you this Thanksgiving. Look around at the things cluttering your desk and your mind. Take a deep breath and say out loud, “we’ll figure it out.” Then give thanks, with a grateful heart.

Thorns and Thanks

sunset over thorns

As we prepare for Thanksgiving, and reflect on the many blessings in our lives . . . after we take a few moments to acknowledge how our days are enriched by family, friends, home and hearth . . . maybe, just maybe, we should also recognize the importance of thorns in our lives.

Seriously, this is not Thanksgiving carb-induced babbling. I’m talking about those people or situations that are a thorn in your side, a burr under your saddle, that might start out as a minor irritant but simply won’t go away. Yep, those. You would be surprised how often, hidden inside the aggravation of said thorn, there is a leadership lesson . . . and the irritation of the situation is unlikely to go away until the lesson is extracted.

I’m not referring to the one and done annoying people/situations. That’s just life. I’m talking about the things that just keep poking at you. You think you have addressed the situation and yet it keeps rearing its head time and again. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to ask yourself what you’re supposed to learn from the situation. Why is this such an irritant and what are you going to do differently to get a different outcome?

Easier said than done, I know. But, rest assured, you will continue to be presented the opportunity until you learn the lesson, so you might as well get after it. What kind of lessons might you learn? Maybe it’s about how to best channel someone’s gifts and graces, or finding a way to make them part of the solution rather than an on-going problem. Maybe it’s about the intentional decision to find a way to move forward, rather than pointing out all the flaws or roadblocks in a given situation. Maybe it’s about choosing to collaborate rather than compete, and the willingness to give a little to ultimately find a win-win. Usually, it’s about moving from a negative mindset toward one with a positive potential. It’s a willingness to risk asking “what if”, even if that is not the most popular option.

Indecision, waffling, wallowing, bellyaching . . . believe it or not, these can be pretty comfortable places to live. You have a lot of company and no one expects much from you. Except that thorn, which will just keep poking at you until you decide to do something about it. And once you do, you just might be amazed at the opportunities that present themselves. The end result of your actions, which might never have happened without the irritation of the thorn, could give you many new reasons to be thankful.

So there you have it. On this Thanksgiving, I wish you countless blessings and good fortune . . . and one or two thorns to keep you searching for new possibilities.