Why I Started a Gratitude Journal

In October 2010, I began a gratitude journal. I was stimulated by the presentation of some research and also by an account given by a woman I know. Here are the two accounts.

Journal Entry: On Monday I listened to a presentation by Professor Kim Cameron. He reviewed some of research on gratitude. He showed a long list of psychological and biological benefits (including longer life) that come from doing things like keeping a gratitude journal. Then he showed something that really impressed me. First he pointed out that just as the heart has a rhythm (heart beat), the brain also has a rhythm that can be measured. He showed some graphs. They illustrated brain rhythms in a normal state and in a frustrated state. The two lines were jagged, but more so as frustration increased. He then showed the line when people were in a state of appreciation. The line showed such harmony that a number of the folks in the room reacted with a collective, “Oh.” Like them, I also thought it was quite striking. Kim said that if we can get into that state even once a day, it produces many of the long term payoffs he had cited earlier.

Journal Entry: I was at a meeting with some professional colleagues.  One of my colleagues is a highly accomplished woman.  She told us that she kept a gratitude journal for 18 months.  We were impressed.  Then she told us that she stopped.  We were surprised and we implicitly communicated a feeling of disappointment.  She picked up the implicit message and told us she quit because she no longer needed to keep the journal.  She did not need to write because she was living in a continuous state of gratitude.

I was so impressed that I later asked her to tell me more.  She indicated that her father was a very critical man and she grew up acquiring this same trait.  If she heard a wonderful concert, but the soloist missed a note, she remembered the mistake, not the beautiful music that surrounded it. She related to people in a similar fashion. Rather than celebrating their gifts and the things they did right, she looked for their flaws (and with loved ones, constantly tried to help them correct them!).  The quality of her life reflected her focus.  Because she focused on the negative, what she saw inside herself and all around her were the flaws and the problems.

Doing the gratitude journal was very difficult at first and she struggled to find three things every day that were positive.  But as she continued she experienced intrinsic rewards.  The more she lived in the state of gratitude more desire she had to live in gratitude and the easier it became to do so.  She extended her efforts and, in addition to continuing to write in her gratitude journal, involved her family in sharing three expressions of gratitude with each other at dinner every night.  Her life became increasingly happy and her whole family became more focused on the gifts of the day and each other, than their flaws.

She was in essence, telling me the following. Her brain was naturally programmed to attend to the negative. She engaged in a discipline that had some short term rewards like increased happiness. But after 18 months there was a deeper change, she had a new way of being.  When something happened, good or bad, her new framework led her to see and appreciate the good, even in the bad experiences.  This means an extraordinary transformation had occurred.  Her bad experiences were transformed. Because of her orientation, her bad experiences were instructive.  They increased her adaptive capacity.  This means all her experiences, good and bad, were accumulating for her good.  By committing to self-change, she reprogrammed her old self into a better self, and she was living a more positive life for herself and others.  In this story there is hope for all of us.

I have been keeping a gratitude journal since 2010. Once I started, I immediately began to notice positive differences and it was easy to keep going. Today I look back at over 1,500 pages. Each page is precious. Deciding to keep a gratitude journal was a very good thing to do.



What do I believe about gratitude?

What would happen if more gratitude was expressed at work?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Finding Purpose in Crisis: From Survival to Flourishing

I once had the opportunity to run an organization.  It was populated with magnificent people.  Yet one of the most surprising things to me was their tendency to work mindlessly.  Many would do what they did the day before in the same manner.  There was no sense that they could reinvent what they were doing in ways that were more engaging and more effective.

It turns out that most people on the planet are living in a survival mentality.  This is true of the global workforce and also true of slightly more than half the managerial workforce.  The lives of most of us are not driven by purpose. There is a tendency to drift into a reactive state.

Paradoxically, one thing that tends to transform us is our desire to survive.  We see this in crisis.  As individuals we may need to cope with physical illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, abusive treatment, burnout, job loss or other life demands. In organizations we may need to cope with recession, new competitors, regulatory changes, evolving customer preferences and many other such challenges.

Dark clouds and other signals of danger usually precede these storms.  The signals often call for a transformation, or deep change. We tend to resist the call. When our old habits of thought and action seem to be ever less effective in the face of the change, we are slow to abandon them in favor of learning our way into an elevated state.

To move forward into the storm of real-time learning is no easy decision.  Often I get frustrated because I am doing everything I can think of to solve a problem, and the more I apply my logic, the worse things get.  This is a sign that I am in a trap.  The more I analyze and work at the issue, the more the problem grows, causing me to work harder.  If I continue, I will eventually have a failure and an ego collapse.

In the crisis I come to the point that I must choose between being a paralyzed victim and moving forward in a proactive way.  Making the decision triggers a process of transformation or deep change.  As I become more intentional, I turn fear into faith.  A vision emerges.  I see possibility and I move forward trying to create it.  I am no longer fleeing from a problem.  I am in the process of creating a result.  It is a different way of being.  I move from an orientation to survival to a focus on flourishing.

Turning Points

I once gave a talk about deep change to a group of venture capitalists and CEOs of start-up firms.  A woman I will call Anna came up to tell me her own story of self change.  She began with a declaration:  “I have a very unique skill.  I create companies.  I bring people together, and out of nothing, I make something.  That is what I do.”  Although she said this with enormous confidence, it was not a statement of hubris.  Rather, she spoke with a sense of wonder.  It was as if she was being vitalized by this recognition of her own ability.

I was impressed.  Imagine being confident that you can enter new situations and bring people together in such a way that a new company emerges.  This is adaptive confidence — the belief in one’s capacity to lead deep change.  I asked her how she had acquired this capacity.

“I went through a terrible life crisis,” she said.  “I was without work.  I hungered to get back into my comfort zone.  So I took a job just like the one I was in before.  After three months, I realized that I had made a mistake.  So I decided to leave my job and live without an income.  Previously I thought people loved me because I made money, I discovered that they loved me because of who I am.  I discovered that I could do things I did not know I could do.  I gained a new identity and a higher level of confidence in myself.  I could see in new ways and I was not afraid to try new things.

Turning points cause us to see ourselves differently.  Whether they result from positive or negative events, they capture our attention and invite a new definition of self.  When this happens, we, like Anna, discover two things for sure:  we know that we can change, and thus we know that others can change too.  This knowledge is essential to people who seek to lead deep change.  As we use self-reflection to grow and become more positive and more influential, we acquire the desire to change our external context, a trait sometimes called developmental readiness (Avolio and Hannah, 2008).  This may create a virtuous cycle of initiative and learning.  Living in this cycle we become empowered and empowering to others.

  • The Deep Change Field Guide, p. 73-73

More Than a Meaningful Vision

Helping people to turn towards the positive is often not easy. I received a message from a friend who was working with a troubled teenager. The young woman was making decisions that were taking her to her own destruction. My friend and the young woman had a discussion about the value of choosing another path. The teenager agreed that the alternative path would take her where she really needs to go. Then she thought for a time and said, “But it is so hard.”

The statement was not an observation but a declaration. She was indicating that the alternative path was a challenge so difficult she could not see it as a real option. She was rejecting it.

Looking from the outside in, we can all see the folly in the decision of the teenager. On the downward path she is likely to never know her best gifts or rejoice in the unique expression those gifts. Indeed, on her current path, she is likely to accumulate constraints until she may have no life at all.

In teaching positive organizing I often have a similar experience with executives.

We review the plight of conventional organizations and it becomes clear that conventional organizing leads to the accumulation of constraints. We review the science of positive organizing and examine cases of excellent organizations. In them we see people discovering their best gifts and rejoicing in the expression of those gifts. The people are flourishing and exceeding expectations.

The executives in these sessions agree that they should be in the business of creating more positive cultures. Yet when I ask them to lay out a plan they freeze. Like the teenager I can see them thinking, “But it is so hard.” They are right. Turning a culture positive is hard. It requires taking a risk, it requires going against the grain. Executives, like a troubled teenager, indeed like all human beings, need effective support.   They need positive leadership.

Positive leaders must provide a meaningful vision. They must also provide the resources necessary to attract people to new experiences. They must model what they ask. They must show genuine empathy. They must provide enticing challenges. As trust and desire increase people become willing to try things they are normally afraid to try. In a classroom I have to do it for the executives as students or they will not go home and try. In an organization executives have to do it or their people will not try.


When have I tried to help someone on the downward path?

What do people need in addition to a meaningful vision?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

Gratitude and Self Change

Gratitude has been called the parent of all virtues. Observing good alters the observer in many ways.  One way is that the observer stops seeing the other people as objects the observer is free to judge and act upon.  The observer instead takes a “growth mindset” and sees the observed relationship, team or organization as a living organism trying to adapt, survive or even flourish.

If the organization we observe is not a technical system but a human system, then the organization becomes the process of life itself. In an appreciative perspective we realize that we cannot successfully act upon an organization. We have to act with it. As we become aware that the organization is an extension of ourselves, we can make a powerful discovery. We can best change the organization by changing ourselves. By enacting a better version of ourselves we attract the people to a higher level of functioning.

The Legacy We Leave

In my MBA class we discussed a scene Freedom Writers.  In it a teacher transforms a class of impoverished students who come from rival gangs.  A turning point in the story is when the students justify the norm of dying for their gangs.  The teacher tells them that when they die, they will rot in their graves and no one will remember them because all they did was live a life of anger and hate.  Her point was that such behavior is so common it is not worth remembering.  Later she introduces a method that allows the students to tell the stories of their personal struggles. It was a way for them to gain a voice and leave a meaningful legacy. Doing so transformed the class and the students.

During the discussion, one of the older students became quite animated.  She shared a personal story.  When she was a girl, her father was the head of a Quaker group in Little Rock, Arkansas.  After the integration of Little Rock High School, many laws were being passed to protect segregation.  The Quakers voiced a contrary position and her father was told to be silent or he would lose his job.  He told them that he could not be silent.

She told this story with great feeling.  I asked the class why the story was so important to this woman.  They made some thoughtful comments.  I suggested that when he exercised his courage, her father was probably giving little thought to his daughter; yet he was doing something that was uncommon and worth remembering. He was leaving his daughter a legacy (an inheritance, gift, remnant, or reminder) that had now become a core element in her own identity. When we leave our conventional patterns and live by principle, we change the world. When we do we leave a legacy.

4 Questions that will Change Your Life: The Fundamental State of Leadership

We had a wonderful group of executives attend a program in Executive Education.  They were hungry to get better.  We organized the entire week around learning to enter the fundamental state of leadership.   One does this by answering four questions that are designed to help you move yourself and others from the normal, reactive state to the elevated, proactive state.  The questions are:

  • What result do I want to create?
  • Am I internally directed?
  • Am I other focused?
  • Am I externally open?

They loved the materials that were presented and, at every opportunity, they looked to apply them.  At the end of the day on Thursday, I gave them a role-play. I said, “On Monday you get on the elevator and the CEO is standing there.  To your shock, he says, “you just spent a week in Michigan.  That cost us a lot of money.  What did we get for it?”

The first answer was, “It was really good, and I learned a lot.”  This seemed to make sense to everyone.  I asked them to deeply analyze if the response was reactive or proactive.  Everyone was seeing the experience as a problem to be solved (How do I not upset the CEO and get off the elevator as soon as possible?).  Naturally, no one saw it as an opportunity to further his or her highest purpose and transform the organization.  I told them that thirty seconds on an elevator with the CEO is a chance to change the world.

We went back to the four questions they could use to elevate themselves.  Each group had time to prepare one person to stand up and role-play with me.  The other three groups were assigned to score each performance on a one to ten scale.  I also told them that when I, the CEO, asked them the above question, their first sentence had to be a question, not a statement.  I repeated this three times.

When the time came I asked the first person to stand.  He did not respond with a question.  He made an intellectual statement that did not engage me.  The other three groups gave him a score of three and everyone laughed, including him.  I continued.  Three out of four groups started with a statement not a question.  Each group received a three.  One group asked a great question, and I, the CEO, was engaged, so I asked a question back and the person did not know what to say.  The other groups, nevertheless, gave that group a seven.  Just their question gave them a higher score than the other groups.

I asked what they learned.  They told me they learned that it was hard to be proactive.  Then someone spoke up and said, “What would you do?”

I had one of them ask me the question.  I responded, “Why did you spend all that money on me, what result did you want to create?  My questioner stumbled and finally said, “To make you a better a leader?”  I said, “That is an amazing commitment on your part, thank you.   You must really care about the development of the people in this company.  It turns out that I have developed an idea on how to profoundly increase the leadership capacity of every executive in the company, quickly and efficiently.  I am wondering if you would be interested in talking about how to do that?”

The other person said, “Yes, come to my office for lunch on Wednesday.”

The room was frozen.  It was an extraordinary teaching moment.  I could see their minds spinning.  I asked what they learned.  There was an outpouring of insights.  Someone finally said, “Wow, we could make a difference.”  The whole week seemed to crystallize.

We ended the session and I was about to walk out.  A participant stopped me.  The person was in tears.  The tears increased as the participant told of a disastrous previous exchange with a senior authority figure.  The person then described an epiphany, “These last twenty minutes are twenty of most important minutes I have ever spent.  If I had understood what I understand right now, last week’s conversation would not have been a disaster, it would have had an incredibly positive outcome.”  The person was conveying gratitude. When we understand the four questions from this class, and how to use them, we immediately become more effective leaders. We can change the world.

There’s no Checklist for Culture Change

My colleague, Jeff Liker, is an expert in the implementation of lean manufacturing, a process which originated at Toyota.  Jeff told me that only 2 percent of the companies that have implemented lean manufacturing have achieved anticipated results.  The failures represent billions of dollars in lost value.  The problem is not with the technology.

There is something that few Western managers understand.  Successful implementation involves joining with others in the co-creation of the emerging future.  In other words, the organization has to become a system of learning.  The culture has to become more positive, open and responsive.

Western companies operate with a checklist mentality. An expert comes up with the “correct” way to do something, builds a plan, trains the people, and audits the change progress.  This is called change management.  The great thing about change management is that it is fast and efficient. The bad thing is that is seldom works. Worse, most people fail to see why change management does not work.

Thirty years ago I was with a leader who had led the successful transformation of an auto plant.  At the time he was trying to explain his success to other plant managers and the teaching effort was not going well.  He later explained that the plant managers wanted “a checklist” so they could engage in a linear and controlled process of implementation.  They did not want to hear about such things as participation, risk-taking, continual experiments, authentic communication, mutual learning, the transformation of assumptions, and the joint implementation of new ideas.

When it comes to culture change the average manager in the United States tends to fail for the same reasons the average manager failed three decades ago. The implementation process involves collective learning.  It is messy, risky and requires more mental and emotional work than you can do with a simple checklist.  The challenge is to understand positive leadership and how to co-create the emerging future.

Shattering Illusions

Today’s blog is taken from the message I shared in my monthly newsletter.

I read a compelling article in Wired Magazine.  It is the story of a middle-aged North Korean defector named Kang Chol-hwan.   As a child, Kang spent 10 years in a prison camp with his family.  When he was released from the prison camp he was given a radio receiver that he figured out how to re-wire, allowing him to listen to unofficial programming.  He began to relearn the entire history he had been taught about North Korea.  Eventually he was found out, and he barely managed to escape by bribing some border guards.

Soon Kang was touring the world and visiting with heads of state.  Thousands listened to his story.  When he returned to South Korea he found little support for his desire to change the North.  The president of South Korea had just won the Nobel Prize for his policy of compromise with the North.  Many people intellectually and emotionally supported Kang’s cause, but few were willing to take action.  Kang was a threat to the stability of the regime.

In 2005, when Kang realized that there was little hope that anyone would act against the North Korean government, he did what internally directed leaders do.  Kang took a unique path.  “Change, he decided, would have to come from within, through the same life-altering education he had received from his illegal radio. He flipped his strategy: Instead of working to tell the world about the horrors of North Korea, he would work to tell North Koreans about the world.”

Kang has spent the last ten years smuggling contraband into North Korea.  His organization gets 3,000 USB drives, filled with information about the world, into the North every year.  He believes that this injection of information will eventually lead to the overthrow of the Kim dynasty.  He sees the USB drives like “the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions.”

There are many lessons in Kang’s story.

1.  Organizations can intimidate and constrain their people – like North Korea.  People can become disengaged and afraid.

2.  People can react conventionally, and accept the assumptions of their leaders.  Or they can respond like Kang and seek new information and new avenues for creating a positive solution.

3.  We can all be like South Korea and other countries that were unwilling to “rock the boat.”  Fear may keep us from making the kind of deep changes that are necessary in the long term.  We often choose peace and pay in our organization.

4.  Kang internalized 5 characteristics that I believe are critical to creating a positive organization:  communicating authentically, illuminating the highest purpose, focusing on the common good, seeing possibility, and trusting and embracing the chaos and risk that is inherent in the emergent process.

I’m sure there are many more lessons that can be found in Kang’s story that are applicable to your situation.  I hope that like Kang you will find ways to inject positive ideas into your organization (and life), and that you will use those ideas to start conversations and shatter old illusions.