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Grateful Leadership: Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results

Grateful Leadership: Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results

by Judith W. Umlas

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From a global leader in management training—the definitive guide to improving employee engagement

Retaining the best people is one of the most important—and undervalued—roles a leader performs. But executives and managers can’t do this all by themselves; they need the support from all levels of an organization.


From a global leader in management training—the definitive guide to improving employee engagement

Retaining the best people is one of the most important—and undervalued—roles a leader performs. But executives and managers can’t do this all by themselves; they need the support from all levels of an organization.

Grateful Leadership provides key strategies and proven techniques for creating an environment in which gratitude is freely expressed—a culture of acknowledgment that delivers benefits at every level of the organization, beginning with the bottom line.

Judith W. Umlas is SVP of Learning Innovations at International Institute for Learning, a global corporate training company, and runs the Institute’s site, allPM.com, which serves more 100,000 project managers.

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Grateful Leadership

Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results


The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2013International Institute for Learning, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-179952-2



From "I'm Mad as Hell!" to Acknowledgment Activist

Years ago I was troubled by the way people spoke to me or acted toward me at my job at CBS Television while I was pregnant. So I wrote an article for Working Woman magazine entitled "How NOT to Talk to a Pregnant Businesswoman." Overnight, I became the authority on this subject, appearing on Good Morning America and a multitude of radio stations.

I achieved this notoriety simply because no one else was talking about this phenomenon publicly. I had only opened my mouth (or poised my pen) and offered some commonsense, no-brainer (at least to me) "rules" of communication to create a more respectful environment in the workplace.

For example, I wrote in the article:

"As for touching a pregnant (business) woman's belly, be careful." A thoughtful friend explained the instinctive urge to touch as a wish to "warm your hands at the fire of humanity." A noble thought, but if you have never had physical contact with her before, such an unexpected pat may be offensive. The simple solution is to ask. I was charmed and moved when someone would ask to touch my belly, and I invariably answered yes.

Simple advice, but my colleagues didn't seem to know about it until they saw it in print! And all around me, I discovered people were recognizing the value of what I had written. I found out over time that women were posting the column on their office walls and hanging it up on their refrigerators for years after the article was published!

And so it was that I found a way to channel my frustration over the countless examples of people not being acknowledged when they deserved to be. The very first one that I remember taking up residence in the "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!!!" part of my brain was the time I went into my always busy Dunkin' Donuts coffee shop and asked for my usual, mind-bending order of a small, black, half-decaf, half-regular caramel coffee.

This time, there was a new order taker, a lovely young lady with a sweet smile. The next day I returned and got the same person. She filled my order with another pleasant greeting and smile. On the third day, when I got to the front of the very long line, she was there, holding a cup of coffee in her hands.

"What's that?" I asked dumbly. I'm not too bright before my morning coffee.

"Oh, that's your small, black, half-decaf, half-regular caramel coffee!" she said, looking quite pleased with herself.

I was amazed. No, I was incredulous! "How could you possibly remember my order when you have hundreds of customers in a day?" I asked in astonishment. "You are a genius!"

She looked stunned and didn't respond for a few seconds. Then she said very thoughtfully, "I never hear compliments. I only hear complaints. Thank you."

I felt as if I were going to cry when I heard that. How was this possible? How could this delightful, charming, friendly, customer-oriented person be the recipient of only complaints, rather than appreciation, thanks, and ... acknowledgments? This just was not fair. And so it was born—my need to change this condition that seemed to prevail in the world.

My frustration grew with each incident I witnessed. And now that I was tuned into them, I saw them almost every day. And once again, I felt the extreme urgency to fix this sorry state of affairs. But this time my focus was not one narrow group of people such as pregnant businesswomen. My simple intention now became to change and repair THE WORLD (I tend not to think small)!!!

This intention became fueled continuously by the negative mantra that I now heard over and over whenever I acknowledged someone in a service industry: "Thank you for thanking me; no one ever does that." How awful! How sad! I just had to bring this terrible condition forth and then fix it in a way that would lead to having people who deserved it, be acknowledged in heartfelt and authentic ways continuously.

So instead of an article this time, I became determined to write a book. And so The Power of Acknowledgment was born.

The response was phenomenal—both life changing and work altering for all, it seemed, who were exposed to this message. And there were the incredible stories that demonstrated the results to prove this. Along the way, many executives have asked for ways to get their management on board with this soft skill, when their focus more frequently seemed to be on the hard skills.

Ironically, in my opinion the soft skills are the hardest both to teach and to learn. Since it was clear to me that the ability to deliver true, heartfelt, profound, and generous acknowledgments is a critical leadership competency, without which you might as well just forget about leading, it seemed that it was time to write a second book.

From travels all over the world delivering keynote addresses and training sessions on leadership and the power of acknowledgment, I now know, and I have the evidence to support it, that acknowledgment is a skill we all have (although it is in need of development, like muscles that improve when you exercise) and it is one we all want to demonstrate. I've also witnessed the power of acknowledgment—how it changes the lives, moods, and self-perception of both the giver and the recipient, virtually each and every time it is practiced.

I've seen how acknowledgment changes the level of employee engagement, and I've heard about how it affects the bottom line, with the capability of turning average organizations into world-class companies. And I know that leaders who are bold enough, daring enough, self-confident enough to be, of all things, grateful to those they lead will have a profoundly positive impact on their teams, on their divisions, on their organizations, and on what they can achieve. And miraculously, this capability is available to all of us, all of the time. So for those leaders who want to practice the truest and the most gratifying kind of leadership available—Grateful Leadership—and who want to reap the rewards, let's get busy! But first, you may ask, "What is Grateful Leadership?"

Let's spend a few moments on this.


What Is Grateful Leadership?

In the 1960s a new concept in leadership, known as "servant leadership," emerged with the writings and teachings of Robert Greenleaf. The emphasis in this form of leading was on the needs of the people who were being led, which seemed to run counter to the basic ideas underpinning the more hierarchical leadership philosophies popular at the time. Greenleaf created the concept in 1964 and started using the term then. He wrote:

It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.... The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, says of this leadership philosophy, which the center promotes: "If you really listen to your colleagues and figure out how to get them what they need, they will perform at a higher level, which improves the customer experience, which affects business results." It is clear that this type of leadership is effective because it frees people and provides them the resources that they need. People who feel supported produce more effectively.

According to the Success Magazine article "How to Become a Servant Leader," many Fortune 500 companies, such as TD Industries, Aflac, a

Excerpted from Grateful Leadership by JUDITH W. UMLAS. Copyright © 2013 by International Institute for Learning, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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Meet the Author

Judith W. Umlas is SVP at International Institute for Learning (IIL). She is publisher of IIL Publishing and the project management website allPM.com. She has trained more than 20,000 professionals, including project managers, engineers, executives, and C-Level leaders. Umlas is the author of The Power of Acknowledgment and has written articles appearing in Working Woman, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune.

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