March/April 2022

Leadership Letter: Now Is the Time for Gratitude

By Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D.

In his book Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, Greg McKeown recounts the story of a man who was falsely accused of a crime that he did not commit. Despite his innocence, rumors circulated throughout his neighborhood and small town, and the man soon found himself ostracized.

The man obsessed about the incident and its aftermath. For the rest of his life, he carried anger about the injustice and died bitter and heartbroken. He could not find it within himself to forgive those who judged him.

When we experience grief, loss, or misfortune it is hard not to obsess or complain about it. It is an understatement to say that the past two years have been arduous for school board leaders. There has been no shortage of people and experiences to complain about. Whether it involves public backlash over a school board decision, boorish behavior at a school board meeting, or the loss of in-person events — it has been easy to find something to complain about.

McKeown describes the current “complaint culture” that is often fueled by social media. Anyone, at any time and from anywhere can express their displeasure and share criticism of others. Complaining is contagious. The more you complain the easier it is to find something to complain about. Whether directly or indirectly it does hurt all of us. It can become an endless loop.

The same is true of gratitude. The more you express gratitude the easier it is to think of things to be grateful for. When you focus on what you are thankful for, it shifts you away from a deficit mindset filled with regret and worry. Gratitude leads to a sense of possibility, hope, and optimism.

As McKeown states, “When you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have. When you focus on what you have, you get what you lack.” He urges readers to follow a complaint with an expression of gratitude. I recently had a chance to put this to practice when I was flagged for a random security check at the airport. I was tempted to focus on “Why me?” Instead, I took a deep breath. I then expressed gratitude to the TSA worker who had dealt with more than her share of uncooperative travelers that day. I also shifted my thinking to how fortunate I was that we have safety measures in place to ensure my safe travel to my destination.

During this challenging time for school leaders, now is the time to express gratitude. When angry community members express their displeasure over a board decision, reframe your thinking. Be grateful for how many community members trusted you enough to elect you to office. When a fellow board member expresses strong disagreement with you, be grateful for their passion. Over time this shift from complaining about something that you cannot control to expressing gratitude will change your outlook. It may also strengthen your relationship with your peers and constituents.

To develop a new habit, consider something you already do and attach a new behavior to it. Instead of complaining about someone or something, follow the complaint with an expression of gratitude. Eventually, you will shift to thinking about complaining, only to express gratitude instead.

I understand and appreciate how difficult your board service has been and will continue to be. I am grateful that our students have your steady support and leadership. We need you. Our children need you. I am confident that brighter days are ahead for the nearly two million students attending Illinois’ public schools. That is due in large part to the committed, caring, competent individuals who comprise our school leadership teams. 

Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards