“The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.”

— Stephen Spender, I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great

My time as a leader at Darden persuades me that people don’t express gratitude often enough or well enough. There are many possible reasons for this. Big organizations (such as universities) can, by virtue of bureaucracy and size, grow indifferent. People forget: the extension of time and distance from the object of thanks can erode the sense of gratitude. Then there is the implied obligation in saying “thanks:” admitting a possible debt to others just isn’t cool. Cynics view “thanks” in the same class as emoticons and “have a nice day,” as dishonest social lubricants aimed at extracting something from someone else. And saying “thanks” well takes time, effort, and sincerity—it’s a lot easier to say nothing or mutter “thanks” under your breath than to look the other person in the eye, shake a hand, and actually explain why you are grateful.

Despite all this, colleagues and I write thousands of letters in gratitude and shake many thousands
of hands each year. Why do we persist? The answer resides in the example of two American holidays in
November, Thanksgiving Day and Veterans Day (also known as Armistice Day in
Europe ((History.com notes that, “Veterans Day is not to be confused with Memorial Day–a common misunderstanding, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Memorial Day (the fourth Monday in May) honors American service members who died in service to their country or as a result of injuries incurred during battle, while Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans–living or dead–but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.”))).

Thanksgiving is a beloved event in American culture. Work stops; stores close; families gather; airlines and highways are jammed. If you are of a religious cast of mind, the day might include a moment of prayer. But in most settings, it is a largely secular feast day, the start of a long weekend from work, a deep dive into televised football and power shopping, and the commencement of a six-week end-of-year holiday season. Thanksgiving rocks.

Veterans Day gets less attention. Originally designated as a commemoration of the fallen in World War I, it has evolved into an expression of thanks for all those who have served in the military. There may be local parades or encampments by re-enactors of military units. But it’s not the kind of stop-everything holiday that is Thanksgiving.

Veterans Day can be problematic for some people. Wars are unpopular and leave a trail of damage visible in veterans and their families. The defense establishment is expensive and draws resources that could be used elsewhere. The all-volunteer military in the U.S. does not engender the same sense of social investment as does a system of universal service. In many countries, the military is an instrument of oppression of citizens. Some believe that Veterans Day is a glorification of war or an exercise in triumphalism. And at this moment of polarized politics in the U.S., a public expression of support for veterans might be interpreted as a political statement. Be these objections as they may, it is pointless to withhold thanks to veterans because of the supposed sins of political leaders and military commanders—I saw too much of that in the years following the Vietnam War and deem it a stain on that time.

A simple “thank you for your service to the nation” would seem to be an obvious way to express gratitude—yet some veterans scoff at it. Military service can generate strong conflicting feelings within and among veterans. They are not a homogeneous group; their feelings about their service will vary, depending for instance on where and how long they served; whether they were officers or in enlisted ranks; whether the veteran saw the terrors of battle. I have seen vivid examples of survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress, and hopelessness. For all these reasons, it may not be obvious that a veteran will hear and receive your thanks with the sincerity in which you offer it.

Suffice it to say, there are loads of reasons to skip saying “thanks.” Still, we need to do it. Giving thanks is one of the ways we sustain our ideals as a society. Giving thanks takes us out of ourselves and inserts us into the fabric of values that make us part of something larger. By giving thanks, one transcends from “me” into “we.” Life in any society without gratitude would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” the state of pre-societal nature that Thomas Hobbes described. A mentor of mine, Peter Gomes, once wrote,

“A very rich man once told me that we can never say “Thank you” too often, and he is right, for not only is it an appropriate and pleasing acknowledgement of the one who has done something for us, but it also serves to remind us that we are rich because others have chosen to make themselves poorer in our behalf. It should thus be our ambition to do the same for others.”

All of this offers some lessons for enterprise leaders.

· The first lesson is that healthy societies and high-performance organizations recognize the various contributions of their members. They say thanks. Gratitude is not ancillary to their operations; it is at the core; it promotes a culture of trust and teamwork. A casual survey of the enormous range of books and articles on the attributes of high-performance organizations will emphasize this point (see for instance, The New Gold Standard.)

· Sincerity is crucially important. Don’t say thanks just to check the box on a to-do list or to imitate high-performance leaders. False attitude is evident from a distance. All sincerity is rooted in values and a view about the special worth of some service. Stop and reflect on what really matters.

· You have to give thanks to someone and for something. Having an object and a subject of gratitude is fundamental to giving thanks. On Thanksgiving Day, it is easy to lose sight of the “who” and the “what” in the haze of overeating, passive entertainment, and family logistics.

· Feeling versus acting: it is not enough simply to feel warm and grateful—a heavy meal will accomplish that. It isn’t thanks unless you’ve expressed it in some way. The best expressions of thanks are unambiguous and entail some sacrifice. One person makes an annual visit to the mentor who got her through college. Another person takes his team to dinner after the completion of a must-be-done-yesterday project. And then there is the remarkable example of weekly visits to a dying teacher, in Tuesdays with Morrie.

· It gets personal. Some managers suppose that gratitude is simply conveyed in an extra paycheck. The impression that money leaves is ephemeral. Instead a personal greeting, a meeting to celebrate outcomes, or a handwritten note create a special bond and lasting memory.

A culture of gratitude begins with an awareness of some sacrifice. Are you paying attention? And such a culture enables a remembrance of sacrifice. Finally, such a culture instills a sense of honor for that sacrifice.

I’ll go on writing my letters, and paying calls to express my thanks to various stakeholders of Darden. I visit with retired, emeritus professors whenever I can and remind them of the grateful memories offered by Darden graduates.

And I will thank veterans. Every year on Veterans Day, my wife and I host Darden’s students who have served in the military. The group has included students not only from the U.S., but also from countries such as Turkey, Israel, Norway, Russia, and South Korea. It’s a simple meal—all the lasagna and salad you can hold—and the camaraderie is great. Bobbie and I host this gathering as a way to express our gratitude and respect for the sacrifices made and risks taken. And I hope that our action helps to set an example in our community and region, empowering others to do the same. You see, expressing gratitude can be catching.

Stephen Spender’s great poem, written after World War I, has always captured for me the sense of awe, respect, and gratitude for those who have served in national defense, and indeed, for first responders everywhere—indeed, they have “left the vivid air signed with their honour.”

I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great
Stephen Spender
I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.
What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are feted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.