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What is Gratitude? A Mastership Thesis by Master Travis Dillow

Posted: February 13, 2017

Gratitude is the quality of feeling and/or expressing thankfulness in a positive manner.  When it comes to gratitude we all know one thing to be true, everyone loves hearing “thank you.” Gratitude isn’t a characteristic that is reserved only for people in leadership, but rather something that everyone should strive to have as a part of their life.  However, gratitude is something that every leader should spend some emotional energy on perfecting in their life.  When a leader shows thankfulness and gratitude to the people he or she leads, or the people that lead them it build tremendous confidence is those around them.  Gratitude is an everyday reminder of appreciation in of what people do and say.  If the team you lead doesn’t know that you appreciate them, then you are a bad leader.  The gratitude must start with you, remember we teach what we know, but we reproduce who we are.  If you want a thankful team, then be a thankful leader to your team.  Here are some principles I have learned about gratitude over the past 16 years of leadership in my life.

Gratitude isn’t always said in words:  Let’s be honest, gratitude makes people feel special, and when people feel special they know they are appreciated.  Gratitude is the name we give that combined feeling of affirming someone to feel special, thus creating the emotion of feeling appreciated in their life.  As a leader it is essential that your team knows they are special to you and appreciated by you, and gratitude sums up both those feelings in their lives.  There are times when “thank-you” is appropriate and in order, but if that is where your gratitude stops as a leader then your team really isn’t feeling the impact that you want them to experience.  Words are words, and yes they have meaning but as we have always “heard actions speak louder than words”.  There are many ways to show gratitude as a leader, and most of them don’t involve saying anything at all, but just doing.  Here are some things I watch in my own life to make sure I show gratitude to the people that I surround myself with.

A.    Be reachable:  A leader who is present is a leader who communicates to his or her team mates that they are appreciated.  Return the phone call, respond to the text or email, make sure you make an effort to let your team know that you are there for them.  The side effect of this is letting them know that what they have to say is valuable and you appreciate their thoughts or questions.  A study was done to show that the greatest way to show ingratitude is to ignore communication with those that you lead.  When a phone call isn’t returned the team mate feels like they are not appreciated or cared for.  When a return attempt is made the team mate feels special and appreciated, the two things that gratitude ultimately brings to the service.

B.    Give them credit:  A great way to show gratitude is by simply giving your team credit where credit is due.  It is more than a thank you, but more of an affirmation that they are doing a great job, you recognize it and appreciate it.  People work harder for those that appreciate them than they do out of fear of those who don’t, plus all this falls right under the category of loyalty as well.

C.    Watch your body language:  Body language says more than the mouth most of the time.  Avoid the looks, sighs, and frustrated demeanor around your team, it communicates that you are sick of them.  When there are issues, and there always will be deal with them one on one, face to face (avoid email leadership).  Although you may be addresses a subject that makes them uncomfortable, the fact that you sat down and clearly communicated it with them will make them feel special and appreciated.  If you have issues with some of your team members, talk about, don’t try to solve it by sending off non-verbal cues in their direction.  The non-verbal cues create the opposite effect of gratitude, it makes them feel worthless and intimidated. 

Gratitude isn’t an after thought:  A leader that has truly learned to live a life of gratitude has a natural ability to look for things to so his or her appreciation for.  Gratitude shouldn’t be an after thought in a great leader’s mind, but rather it should be the first thought when interacting with his or her team.  A delayed display of gratitude is like getting fed dinner after you just left a big meal.  It taste good, you may enjoy it, but it really isn’t meeting a need at the moment.  When it comes to making your team feel special and appreciated it is done in the little things mostly, the big things are too planned and rehearsed.  You have to let your team know that on a daily basis you recognize their unique contribution to the organization, and because of that you are grateful for them being around.  A great leader looks for those little things in everyday life to be thankful for to his or her team.  Leaders are quick to point out what is wrong, but slow to point out the every day things that a team mate does right, and without those things done everyday you would not be the leader that you are.  Naturally we all want more from most of our team, but the best way to get more is to be thankful to them for what we are already getting, this is done by intentional, daily displays of gratitude.

Create “you rock” moments:  This is a no brainer, and easy to do.  A great leader is able to identify in his or her team mates what their unique strength is that brings life to the team.  It may not even be something directly related to work, but more related to the team dynamics.  What I have learned is everyone contributes something that only they can.  It may be humor, compassion, encouragement, or a number of other “non task list” items.  The truth is it is those things that really make that team member stand out.  A leader should always be learning what the different team members ‘wheel house’ is and serve up some fat pitches just so everyone can watch them knock it out of the park.  The “un-said” behind all that is you are special and I appreciate you.  Get to know your team, find out what they are great at, then get strategic about letting them show off their greatness, again even if it isn’t directly related to work stuff.  When I am sitting in a meeting I make it a point to set up those on my team to shine, let them “wow” the other people.  Everyone else will know that their time is coming to do the same thing, and everyone knows that you did it on purpose…that is what makes them feel special and appreciated. 

Now, with that said don’t do the opposite!  NEVER set up a person in public for failure.  Never ask for information that you know a team member doesn’t have, handle that stuff in private.  A great leader is a great equipper, equip your people to shine, this shows tremendous gratitude.  Create the moments where everyone on the team looks at one person and thinks “you rock”!

Gratitude is contagious:   If I want a grateful team, then I must be a grateful leader.  If you are feeling under appreciated as a team leader then chances are you are under appreciating your team.  This is the same for horizontal gratefulness as well.  The team dynamic between each other on your team will only grow into gratefulness as you display to it people on an individual basis.  It is really hard to lead a team that doesn’t appreciate each other, and the glue that holds them together is gratefulness, you must provide that glue to begin with.  Once the leader starts setting the pace, others will pick up on it and do the same.  Gratefulness is the key that opens the door to opportunity.  You want your team to have a united heart and solid front line, then it must have gratefulness at the foundation of everything that happens.  Even loyalty comes from the heart of gratefulness, you won’t be loyal to a person that doesn’t appreciate you.  For any team to move forward together they must recognize and talk about the strengths in each other.  You as a leader can’t meet all the emotional needs of everyone on your team in this area, but they can meet each others.  This will never start unless you begin with it, then you will watch it grow into an amazing thing.  Work hard on being grateful, work hard on expressing it to your team.  Remember, you can even deal with issues in a manner that communicates gratefulness to your team.

 “Every kid is a winner and every kid is special” is one of ATA’s common slogan.  I believe whole heartedly in teaching this concept in our classes but also believe that it should be used for our leaders.   Eternal Grand Master Lee sacrificed the majority of his time and life to always be available to visit and meet all the student’s involved.  He traveled more weeks out of the year being in different parts of the country visiting his ATA schools and instructors than being home with his family.  He set an example for all his leaders to be available and connect with as much as possible with all the schools.  Now ATA has set up organized training camps regionally and allows both instructors and students access and ease of training with the leaders of the organization, which shows their support and gratitude for being leaders and expanding the ATA.

What I love most is how appreciative Grand Master Lee and the seniors are for the smaller schools as they are for the largest schools.  When I ran my first school in St. George, Utah, which was a smaller town and a smaller school, I was visited by Grand Master Soon Ho Lee.  He took the time away from his trip in Las Vegas and drove 4 hours round trip to visit my school.  I was very willing to come to Las Vegas to see him but he made the effort because he wanted to come see the schools and visit all the ATA students and families in the small town.  I asked him why he would make the effort to make the trip when I could have just come to see him and he responded, “The smaller schools like mine make up 80% of the organization and are just important as the largest school and if a leader thinks he is too big to do the smaller things then he is too small for the larger things.”

The ATA is the first martial arts organization to create a teaching system for instructors to share the knowledge of Songahm Taekwondo in a professional and effective way.  The teaching system used is structured around what we call the Ten Class Management Skills.  These class management skills are wrapped up with the 10th and final one which is “Teach Concept of Personal Victory.”  Every student, instructor and leader need to be praised on their victories and achievements and not just praised in comparison with others. 

Not only has ATA given us the system to teach this important concept, but it has also has given us the model to follow. ATA has created many ways of recognizing students and instructors for their hard work and efforts.  We have tournaments that recognize students for their Taekwondo ability, and at the beginning of each tournament, participators take a moment of time to recognize and thank students and instructors for their different levels of involvement.  We have training camps that allow leaders to be recognized in front of their juniors for their specialized levels of skills set.  We also have a top 50 schools business appreciation listing that school owners can follow on a monthly basis, and is followed up with a ceremony at world championships for the top 50 schools in each category.

One of the most amazing places to see is the ATA World Headquarters in Little Rock, AR.  As you enter the building you will view a museum of hundreds of awards and gifts for Eternal Grand Master Soon Ho Lee and Grand Master Soon Ho Lee for their efforts of beginning and leading the ATA to be the world’s largest martial arts organization.  I believe that these hundreds of gifts were given not only for their acts of leadership but also for their thousands of acts of gratitude for the people they worked with to create the world’s largest martial arts organization.  I’ll always remember when I was only 16 years old that Eternal Grand Master Lee came to visit the school I was and assistant instructor at.  We he entered the school he really didn’t know of me or know about me but recognized that I was passionate about what I was doing and loved what I was part of.  When traveling, he always makes it a point to carry medals of recognition to present to people that stood out to him.  He came out on the floor while I was teaching class, and stopped the class to present me with the medal.  It is by far one of the proudest moments of my life, and I still wear that medal with honor.  I immediately wanted to return the act of gratitude to Eternal Grand Master for that recognition and have done so in a number of different ways since.   Eternal Grand Master Lee never commanded us to thank him publicly because he didn’t have to by his continues acts of showing it.  These acts of gratitude have not only been a great example for all of his students and leaders to be grateful to one another, but has also helped create the loyalty in the organization the holds us together so strong. 


They say the number one challenge in running a business is one employee and the number two challenge is having 2 or more employees. I believe this challenge can be eased by making sure you are consistently showing acts of gratitude and are involved. Most of the time, the employees are not only employees but also junior students in a martial arts school. School owners need to be aware of this and not just expect their employees to perform well because they are a junior student and are required to out of respect for their instructor.  This in turn can actually have a very negative effect for that employee and build resentment to never want to work in the martial arts industry again. 

I have been the employee for other martial arts school owners, and will always relate to my team members the way I was treated as an employee.  It irritated me most when I was asked to do promotions or other events and put in extra time I was not paid for, and the school owner I was working with would not even show up themselves. I am always involved with my team members and operations but not to the point where they feel like I’m constantly looking over their shoulder, and make it a definite point at letting them know they are appreciated for their extra efforts and time. 

          Having been an employee for martial arts school owners, I also know what it’s like to not be appreciated for the income earned in the school.  I feel employees should have a base salary that’s reasonable, but more importantly have a bonus structure set up so they can feel reward when the school does well.  This also creates a sense of ownership for the employees, and therefore will also create a higher level of responsibility. I also believe in small acts of financial appreciation for their hard work and efforts that are done randomly and unexpectedly.  I have organized for our staff event outings such as outdoor retreats or theme park visits.  During these events, it is not only a chance for our team to know they are appreciated, but also a chance to build relationships that create loyalty for one another.  We will also celebrate by taking our team out for a nice dinner when we have reached a financial goal.  And then sometimes for no particular reason we will show our appreciation by buying everyone a coffee for the day or treating them to dessert after a hard day’s work.  I believe an employee will show hard work and effort more for just the recognition and appreciation of it than what their paid for.

          We have a little saying for our team members for their hard work and effort, or for creating an idea that works for the team or students.  If it’s a guy we’ll tell him “You da man!” and for the gals we’ll say, “You go girl!”  It’s a small saying but when said publicly around the other team members or students it’s recognized as a great level of achievements.  We also take the time and effort to send our students and team member cards in the mail of appreciation. When I was a child, I would always be thrilled to see something that was in the mail addressed specifically for me. So for a child student, we know this has a great impact.  For adult students or employees it’s always great to get something in the mail that isn’t a bill!

            I have witnessed my instructor represent a great level of gratitude to his instructor.  My instructor has succeeded more in just about every level of his Taekwondo career than his instructor.  However, whenever he has the chance to recognize his instructor for him being the one responsible for getting him where he is at, he takes the opportunity.  He does this as an example for his students knowing that it not only represents gratitude but also loyalty.  He knows that these two areas leadership cannot be expected or asked, but must be demonstrated.  My instructor also makes it a point to recognize me and his other senior instructors as much as possible.

          We, as business owners and instructors, not only have to be aware of recognizing and being grateful to our students and team members, but also the ones that are closest to us.  My wife and two daughters work at the studio with me at least 3 days a week.  I’m not the best at it, but I specifically make it a point to publically show my level of appreciation to them. I want others to know that they are not there because they have to be or I expect them to be, but because they love to be.  It can be a challenge as a father and a spouse to sometimes neglect showing my appreciation to them because I get comfortable with them just being there all of the time, but I have to remember that they are regular people with regular feelings like everyone else, and can be sensitive to not feeling appreciated.  When others see how grateful I am for them they can hopefully relate and show that same gratitude to their families.