There’s a scene in the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood when journalist Lloyd Vogel looks at Fred Rogers and suggests that it couldn’t have been easy growing up with the famous Mr. Rogers for a father.
Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, gives it some thought. With a hint of sadness in his eyes, he shares a little about how his two boys at times didn’t respond well to his fame, how they eventually worked through their relationship issues, and how proud he now is of his sons.
“But you are right, Lloyd,” Rogers says. “It couldn’t have been easy on them.” Then he pauses and adds, “Thank you. Thank you for that perspective.”
The scene is a wonderful reminder as we turn the page toward the 2020 version of Thanksgiving that gratitude isn’t reserved exclusively for the good things that come our way. It’s also a healing force for our disappointments, regrets, pain, and hardships. Throughout the movie, Rogers is nothing if not thankful – even for a painful reminder that he wasn’t a perfect father.
There’s no way to sugarcoat 2020 as anything other than a difficult year. I know people who have grown their businesses, gotten married, had children or grandchildren, and experienced all sorts of other joyful occasions. But I know of no one who hasn’t also experienced more difficulties and frustrations in 2020 than in typical years. As Mr. Rogers might point out, it’s how we deal with it that matters.
Gratitude is one way to deal with it. While it might seem (and feel) counter-intuitive, gratitude works wonders because it changes us from the inside out. But it doesn’t just change us. It changes everyone around us, which is why it’s such a powerful tool for leaders.
There’s never a time to lead without gratitude, but it becomes especially important during difficult times because that’s when it’s easiest and most natural to abandon it. It’s OK to deal with frustrations and anger by, say, banging on the low-end keys of a piano, as Mr. Rogers would do. But it’s transformative to also find the positives that come from even the most negative experiences. Banging on the piano is a healthy way to release our emotions; gratitude is what moves us forward in a positive way.
Some of the most difficult days and weeks of my life came when it seemed unavoidable that the company I was leading would soon go through bankruptcy. When I thought of what that outcome would mean to me, my family, our employees around the world, our customers, and our investors, a knot often formed in my gut that made it hard to think straight.
I wasn’t grateful for the circumstances. Not one bit. But I was grateful for my family’s emotional support and practical wisdom, not just in that moment but over the years. They helped prepare me for the challenge, as well as how to get through it. I was grateful for my management team’s expertise and commitment to finding solutions. I was grateful for our employees’ willingness to trust us and execute our plans. And I was grateful for our customers and investors for sticking with us.
Once it became clear we had avoided bankruptcy and the company would survive, I was even grateful for the opportunity of the experience. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but there’s no question that it shaped me into a better leader. My saw was sharpened by the friction of metal meeting grindstone.
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Leaders today are facing some monumental challenges, and there’s nothing more important to their role than to bring an attitude of gratitude into their culture. It will transform them personally as leaders, but it also will transform everyone around them into better versions of themselves.
Sometimes it is easier to follow our instincts and stay angry, bitter, and frustrated about the things in life we don’t like, especially when they are out of our control. But letting go is essential, and it’s not really as difficult as we might think. There’s another scene in the movie, for instance, where Mr. Rogers and Vogel are sitting in a restaurant and Mr. Rogers suggests an exercise to help Vogel deal with his personal demons.
“We’ll just take a minute and think about all the people that loved us into being,” Rogers says.
“I can’t do that,” says Vogel.
“They will come to you,” Rogers tells him.
The screen goes silent for a full sixty seconds and it appears as if everyone in the restaurant joins in the exercise. If you’ve watched the movie, I suspect you did, too. I know I did.
“Thank you for doing that with me,” Rogers says when the minute ends. “I feel so much better.”