Leading the Shift with Gratitude

By Susan Cannon and Sherri Lassila

As we reflect on our leadership journeys, what really stands out are the teachers and transformational learning communities that have stretched us to higher levels of leadership, and led us to a place where we can give back. We’re grateful to now be stewarding this kind of supportive container and transformative, practical curriculum for evolutionary leaders of The Shift, with the upcoming Shift Leadership Academy – Taking Your Soul’s Mission to The Next Level .

Susan’s Reflections:

My leadership journey has been filled with improbable turn of events catalyzed by special individuals reaching out to me at just the right moment. After intense (and disillusioning) corporate work in Cold War weapons development, and a harrowing tour of duty in the collapsing Soviet empire, I was just bone-tired to my core. But that hunger to make a positive difference still burned!

I am so grateful to Liz Campbell, my dissertation advisor and cohort leader at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She patiently held a catalytic, collaborative learning container for me and eight other liked minded evolutionaries as we explored the furthest edges of transformative learning and change in human systems.

The environment Liz created was exactly what I needed to heal body, heart, mind and soul, with the right balance of challenge, support, and skill building to prepare me for a role in the emerging global shift. I wake up every day incredibly grateful that life brought me to this place, and that I get to work with incredible evolutionaries like Sherri.

Sherri’s Reflections

My leadership journey kicked into full gear when I got my first detailed “download” of my Life’s Work. It was so compelling that I felt like I’d been put on the planet to do it, and suddenly everything I’d done in my life made sense – my adolescent challenges, my Stanford MBA and Masters in Education, my management consulting and leadership coaching – it had all prepared me for this. I started a company, joined an incubator, and over the next few years, discovered the joy, passion, and power of life on a mission.

Since then I’ve believed that we’re each designed by Life to make a unique contribution in this world. There is no one else with the same combination of qualities, talents, professional and life experiences, and lessons learned, so I’ve been truly grateful for all of it. I especially appreciate the teachers who saw the higher potential in me, and helped me to embody it more fully, and the many transformational learning communities that provided the structure and support to keep taking my mission and my leadership to the next level.

If I had to thank one, it would be Michael Ray, the Stanford professor who gave me my start in leadership development, teaching his course to executives – a course that had changed my own life, introduced me to mindfulness and meditation, helped me tame my inner critic and embrace my Essential Self, and stretched me beyond my comfort zone to make a bigger impact.

Gratitude as a Leadership Practice

As coaches, we often receive messages of gratitude from people whose lives we’ve touched. We’re inspired to share one in particular, that stands out for Sherri as one of the best compliments she ever got, and it was simply this: “Thank you for being.” It was just a few words, but so profound. She was being thanked not just for all her hard work, but for who she IS… for just being her; for her presence not just in this person’s life, but her presence in this world.

The impact of expressions of appreciation like this can be huge. They make us stop and realize the many tiny miracles we each contribute every day, and the many more ripple effects that we don’t even see. They make us want to grow and contribute even more. As evolutionary leaders, this is the kind of impact we want to have on the people we work with - to fully recognize their incredible gifts and potential, and create environments where those gifts can be fully expressed. Yet how often in our busy lives do we actually feel and express this kind of gratitude - for ourselves, and for those who touch our lives?

Our gratitude muscle can be strengthened with dedicated practice, which confers a host of leader benefits. At minimum it generates positive emotions in the heart that help harmonize and quiet our busy, worrying minds. By honoring and elevating others who are contributing to the common good, it lubricates and strengthens the social bonds in our networks of influence.

From an evolutionary perspective, gratitude is a healing salve. Our brains evolved to magnify our attention to threat, to what is wrong. In a primitive hostile world this may improve our chances of survival, but in a postmodern environment, it doesn’t leave us with much brain real estate to pay attention to what is going well. Given that it takes five expressions of praise to counterbalance one expression of criticism, an investment in gratitude as a leadership competency is well worth it.

Here is a simple gratitude practice we use, one that scientific research has shown to benefit health and well-being in as little as a month (if you do it every day)

  • Lie comfortably in bed, eyes closed, and after a few deep breaths, begin to focus on your heart center. Feel it warm and begin to glow in your chest.
  • Scan back over your day, and select three occurrences for which you feel gratitude and appreciation. Bring these vividly to mind, one by one. As you relive them, connect to your heart, and feel the joy, love, gratitude, and other positive emotions that these blessings invoke in you. Then imagine extending your gratitude and love to the people who were involved in these moments.
  • Feel the glow in your heart swell and grow larger with each blessing—your gratefulness becomes your “Great Fullness.” Sweet dreams!

In addition to feeling gratitude in this way, it’s important as an evolutionary leader to develop a habit of expressing it. There is growing evidence that leaders who operate from a higher consciousness, such as the Level 5 leaders Jim Collins wrote about in Good to Great, have a more modest, humble nature than our culture has typically associated with influential leaders. They freely and instinctively give credit and appreciation to others. They model gratitude. By affirming the goodness that others bring, they build trust and inspire a motivated followership that can do truly extraordinary things.

Given our culture’s tendency toward problem solving and constructive criticism, it’s helpful to have a conscious practice of expressing gratitude. For example, you could make a point of reaching out to at least one person each day to tell them the specific ways they make a difference. And don’t forget, in your own way, to also thank them for being.

Susan Cannon and Sherri Lassila are new faculty of The Shift Network. Look for their upcoming free talk on The Shift Leadership Roundtable: A Virtual Workshop to Take Your Soul’s Mission to the Next Level.

Susan Cannon, Ph.D is a certified integral master coach, interdisciplinary scholar-practitioner, university professor, organizational consultant, and futurist who shaped her 25+ year career toward innovation and change in human systems. To learn more about Susan, click here.

Sherri Lassila has 15 years of experience in executive coaching, leadership development, and group facilitation. She is known for blending transformational inner work with practical results, and for creating highly supportive yet challenging coaching circles where leaders expand their authentic leadership and realize their full potential power and impact. To learn more about Sherri, click here.


Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in: 2015 Catalyst, Issue 23: Thanksgiving and Gratitude