Can you be Thankful? It Would Make you a Stronger Leader!

von Karsten Drath

Did you know that by far the largest program to enhance resilience has been launched by the US Army in 2009? With a budget of 140 million US dollars the initiative “Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness” aims to increase the mental and emotional strength of soldiers being deployed in war zones. 

Hunting the Good Stuff

One of the most effective interventions used in this program is called “Hunt the good stuff” which is military jargon for practicing gratefulness. In the core of the exercise is a daily routine to write down three things, events or encounters for which you are truly thankful. They don’t need to be big or extra meaningful – however the feeling of gratitude needs to be real. In our workshops we work a lot with this intervention and the skeptical reactions of our participants are both predictable and amusing. The facts show indeed that this and similar interventions are very effective when you do them on a daily basis over a period of at least six weeks. What happens when you do this is that the neuronal structures in your brain that are responsible for feeling thankful get stimulated. 

The Brain can learn to be Thankful

This regular stimulus strengthens these structures and makes them available for easy use. This neuronal process is also called priming. Already in 1949 Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb presented a fundamental law which is still valid today: “What fires together, wires together”. This means that neurons of different brain areas, which are regularly and simultaneously stimulated, increasingly develop interaction until they eventually become an independent stimulation pattern. The results are an increased inner distance to stress, more tranquility, better sleep, improved self-management and greater life satisfaction overall. Not bad for a daily routine that does not last for more than 10 minutes, right? However, as easy as it may sound, many people find it really difficult to identify these three things every day. This can mean one of two things: either they are in victim-mode or in ego-overdrive. 

Victim-Mode or Ego-Overdrive?

If you feel depressed, angry or confused this often goes along with an extensive amount of self-pity. In such an emotional state it is really difficult to be thankful for anything. Practicing gratitude even in such a state is possible though but it requires mental effort. The exercise forces you to decide to leave that victim space in a gentle and subtle way because only then you can feel gratitude. 

Another reason why some people can’t find anything that they are truly grateful for is that they live believing that everything in their life happens because of them and their performance. This somewhat narcissistic sense of entitlement results in a self-image that is prevailing with executives or, more generally put, people on a career track. For them it is helpful to understand that some of the biggest reasons for their success are in fact outside of their sphere of influence. This is certainly true for example regarding the country in which one was born and in what kind of family one grew up.  It is also true when it comes to the color of one’s skin. Also which access to education and healthcare one had in his youth is outside of the control of most people. Furthermore when it comes to career progression there is always an element of luck in it. We talk about being at the right place at the right time which is a synononym for “being just lucky”. So, in order to be grateful for something it requires first to let go of this ego-overdrive and take a more humble perspective on live and every day events. Of course, individual performance and achievements matter. But it is just wrong to believe that there is just nothing to be grateful for.

Here is how it works

For each day record three good things. This can be anything from a beam or sunlight in the morning, a friendly smile or a good conversation. Next to each positive event write a short reflection regarding:

• Why this good thing happened

• How this good thing made you feel

• In what ways you or others contributed to this good thing

• What you can do tomorrow to enable more of this good thing to happen


Example (from the US Army):

Date: 9 Feb 2015

Good Thing: I got a letter from home and my daughter drew a picture of us together.

Reflection: I’ve got a great family and they show me that they miss me when I’m away. 

Will call them tomorrow to catch up and show them that I care.

Looking forward to the experiences you are making with “Hunting the Good Stuff”.


Karsten Drath works with top managers and their teams to improve their leadership effectiveness and resilience. He is a certified Executive Coach and Psychotherapist, a published author and keynote speaker, and is one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Looking back on more than 15 years of own leadership experience in several international roles he knows the challenges that come with the executive lifestyle and also how to cope with them.