Year End Reflections on Contribution and Gratitude

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Another year comes to an end, another year that we could never have imaged 24 months ago … The constant treacle of articles on ‘The Big Resignation’, a reflection on the fact that the somewhat surreal situation we still find ourselves in has invited many of us to rethink and reflect on what actually matters, made me think of something I had prepared for an awards ceremony earlier this year.  I thought that it might be suitable content for the December mailout, a month which invites reflection in many cultures, be this triggered by religious celebrations such as Hanukkah and Christmas, or the fact that another year is coming to an end.

For the awards ceremony the invitation had been to share some fundamental shifts that had happened in my life.  Of the two shifts I decided to share one was more relevant in the professional context, the other in my personal life.  The first one, the professional one, can be described as a shift from, ‘how is my ‘performance’, ‘how good am I?’ to ‘what is my contribution, to the specific audience in front of me’ – be that in teaching, workshops, public speaking or writing. The second, personal shift, is one from – well, I am actually not quite sure, perhaps from a focus on what I don’t have, to one of gratitude, profound gratitude.

Let me tell you a little more about each.

I remember well when I first started teaching and public speaking, I was always nervous, and my biggest concern was, how I would do, whether I was coming across as knowledgeable, professional, competent. Until December 2003.

At the time I was running a networking initiative, the Innovation Exchange, on behalf of London Busienss School. ‘On behalf of’ as I had been working self-employed since finishing my MBA back in 1992, and rather enjoyed the freedom that came with self employment; so when I was in the final stages of my PhD and a professor asked me whether I might be interested in helping set up and run a networking initiative focused on innovation, I replied, as long as you do not want to employ me, as long as I can do it on a contract basis, I shall be delighted! So that’s what I did.

But back to what happened December 2003.  As part of the gamut of activities I organised for the networking group, I had started organising an annual ‘end of year’ conference; initially for members of the networking group, then opening it up to the entire LBS community, and beyond.

In the third year, 2003, I landed a huge coup: despite having no speakers’ budget – covering expenses was all I could offer – I managed to persuade Benjamin Zander, director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra to join us as key note speaker.  He is also author of a book I cannot recommend highly enough: The Art of Possibility (2000), Truly, do get his book, it is full of wisdom, or watch his talks on youtube …

One of the many wonderful stories he related during his presentation was about his own transformation from ‘how do I do’ to ‘what can I contribute’. It goes as follows: By his own admission, he was always rather concerned about his own performance, and quite full of his own self importance, intoxicated by the power that came with the sometimes hundreds of musicians who were following his every move.

That is, until he came across a piece of research by Harvard Business School into job satisfaction of a number of different professions, conducted with thousands of participants.

Intrigued he started to read and was pleased to find that members of string quartets held the top spot, being the profession most satisfied with their job.  Curious to find out how other artistic professions might do he read on. To his dismay and shock he found that the job satisfaction of players in an orchestra was right at the bottom of the ranking, below even that of street cleaners and prison guards.

The reason that he was shocked and dismayed was that he realised that the key difference between a string quartet and an orchestra was, well, him. As he put it, “That’s a rather terrifying insight to think that actually from being the top satisfaction profession to being below prison guards is just this presence of this one character, called the conductor.”

This impressed me deeply. What was my contribution?  Where and how could I create value for my audiences? With that my performance anxiety went away. Not that I was not – still am – somewhat nervous when being in front of audiences, but the focus is no longer on me, it is on the audience.

A key questions for all of us – whether in our personal or professional lives – is, what is my unique contribution.

This story also reflects an important shift in how I think about leadership. This shift from ‘how do I do’ to ‘want can I contribute’ is a shift from the ambition to exert power and control, to a desire to facilitate and support.  In short, it is a shift towards servant leadership. In my view, certainly the leadership style that we need most in the challenging context of the 21st century. Interestingly, Robert Greenleaf wrote his book Servant Leadership (A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness)about 45 years ago. But it took until the 21st century before people started taking more interest in this approach; we have seen quite a few books with ‘servant leadership’ in their title come out in the past few years.

When you think about your contribution, you may even want to take it a step further and ask how your specific contribution connects to improving the state of the world higher, be it from an environmental or a social angle. The more our focus moves from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’ or even they’, the more powerful and meaningful our contribution becomes, the more likely we are to engage ‘followers’ and become an inspiration to others.

A shift from ‘what do I want to share’ to ‘what do others need’ is a shift towards servant leadership.

Perhaps one last comment before moving on to the personal shift. While this shift starts happening in many different areas of business and beyond, is particularly important, if not critical, in the context of innovation: there is no better way to stimulate innovation than to inspire. if you need some arguments and evidence, you may want to check out my recent article ‘The purpose of purpose’.

Now to my second shift, the discovery of the power and beauty of gratitude.

This too was quite a shift, though a much more slow and subtle one. I remember distinctly though that a good 25 years ago grateful was not something I felt!

I was planning to get married and, as I am not a religious person I did not want a church wedding. I felt that my wedding day was certainly a day when I should not pretend or lie. At the same time I was aware that it was important for my husband to be. The solution was a stroke of luck: a school friend of my father’s was a deacon and he agreed to do a blessing for us. In preparation for a first meeting we had been invited to note down some thoughts on the blessing and our forthcoming marriage. My husband ended his with ‘I have so much to be grateful for’. Everything in me rebelled against that. What? I had worked so hard, been through quite a bit, as I thought then, what should I be grateful for? I had done it all myself!

Much in my thinking has changed since then …

I cannot really pinpoint when the shift happened, though I know it certainly has been influenced by my spiritual journey, embracing yoga and meditation, a journey of befriending myself and becoming gentler with myself – by the way, befriending oneself is very different from being self-absorbed of self-centred. The latter is driven by the ego, the voices of others, by externalities. The former requires to observe oneself, with some distance, with loving kindness.

If this starts to get a little too esoteric, let me put it a different way.

Let me ask you, how would you generally describe yourself, as a ‘glas-half-full’, or ‘glas -half-empty’ person? Do you think it matters? I think it does, and let me explain why.

Which ever way you look at it, the facts don’t change!  The level of wine, champagne, water in the glass does not change. But what does? Just think:

‘the glass is half empty’.

What kind of feeling does that evoke?  One of loss?  One of envy for those whose glass is fuller than mine? Regret of having drunk so much already?

Now look at the same glass and think:

‘the glass is half full’.

What kind of feelings does that trigger? Joy of what I can look forward to? A sense of reassurance or even abundance?

Do you notice how one lens keeps you anchored in the past, focusing your energy on looking back? One thing about the past is certain: you cannot change it, you cannot influence it, you cannot control it.

The other lens keeps you in the present, with a glance towards the future; choices and possibilities are yours. It creates a sense of gratitude.

We can consciously work on what we think; how we think profoundly affects how we feel; both can either keep us in the past, where nothing can be changed, or looking towards the future which we can influence.

The interesting thing about gratitude is, once you find something to be grateful for – and there is always something! – it is difficult to remain angry, or envious, or frustrated, or upset, or depressed.

While we live in a world where so much is happening to us, so little seems within our control, – well is in our control – our attitudes, how and where we focus our energy, how we act and react, and our mindsets, certainly are.

It is always possible to find something to be grateful for; gratitude is a positive life force that makes it impossible to stay depressed, angry or envious.

So, is your glass half full, or half empty?

Wishing you a wonderful festive season, and health and happiness  for the year to come.


“I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.”

― Alexander Humboldt

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