Compassion is Gratitude in Action: Reflecting (and Acting) on the Coming Holidays

As Thanksgiving nears, so many think past the holiday of gratitude, and focus more on the "wanting" of presents instead of presence. This article was posted just about a year ago, and highlights some thinking on the deeper meaning of what Thanksgiving and the December holidays mean.

Driving home from a wonderful family Thanksgiving feast on Black Friday, past big box store after big box store with parking lots filled to the brim, I couldn’t help thinking how easily and quickly we shift from holiday of gratitude to the season of “wanting”.  I overheard someone say this past week that they were saddened that there was so little popular notice of Thanksgiving.  It seemed to her, she said, that we went from 6 weeks of Halloween to the eight weeks of Christmas with only an overnight swap of retail merchandise and décor.  Increasingly, the marketing around the holidays bothers me – the unapologetic pitches to kids and adults alike to create peak experiences or a new lease on life from getting “that perfect gift” are everywhere. 

Seven years ago (when I first drafted, and sadly never posted, this article), I wanted to delve into gratitude as a leadership competency.  I googled “gratitude and business performance” and found most of the top sites were advertising gifts to give staff and customers at the end of the year.  More conspicuous consumption - definitely not what I was looking for!  Today, however, the same search yielded top articles from both HBR and Forbes about the use and positive impact of gratitude in the workplace.  While I’m sorry I missed the chance to be a trailblazer on the topic, I’mgrateful that the value of gratitude has begun to take hold in our business and personal lives.

Now, with all that has taken place in our country over the last six months, I am moved to ask the question – what’s next?  Is gratitude enough?  We seem to be still be “wanting”.  Wanting a change, wanting a different outcome, wanting an explanation… What do we really “need”?  Clearly practicing gratitude by replacing thoughts of “want” with recognition of “abundance” is not only difficult for many; it is nearly impossible for those who have been left behind economically, socially and even spiritually.  We who have resources and the ability to influence our families, organizations, and communities need to put gratitude to work.

For me, gratitude in its purest form awakens compassion.  Beyond pity (“I see your suffering”), sympathy (‘I care about your suffering”) or even empathy (I feel your suffering), compassion moves us to ACTION (I want to alleviate your suffering).  Throughout the holiday season many of us challenge ourselves financially to alleviate the suffering of others through charitable works and donations.  I would suggest that during the holiday season and beyond, there are other ways to put compassion into action to alleviate a kind of suffering that often goes unseen.  This is the suffering that we create for ourselves and others when engage in judgment, name-calling, and the demonization of the “other”  - - when we create, maintain, or strengthen the divisions in our collective humanity. 

These practices (shifts in thinking that result in shifts in behavior) that start to bridge divides are simple, yet difficult:

·       Slow down – This really is the hardest part isn’t it? There are many techniques for improving your ability to do this, most notably mindfulness/meditation.   

·       Shift from “furious to curious” – Restrain your “animal instinct” to interpret any challenge to your status quo as requiring fight or flight.  Instead approach these challenges with curiosity and inquiry. “I wonder why that makes sense to that person?”

·       Challenge your assumptions – Try to visualize the automatic “tapes” that play in your head and ask yourself where they came from, if they are still valid and if they are still serving you well.  Often these are self-protective strategies that may have helped you to survive in the past but will never allow you to thrive!

·       Choose something different – We are so often on autopilot, doing those things that we believe work for us.  In every moment, we have response-ability – that is, the ability to respond, to actively choose a different thought and a different behavior.

·       Observe – Take time again to notice how intentionally choosing to act differently changes the energy of a situation for both you and for others.  Recall this shift when you next encounter the urge to judge and separate.  Use it to fuel your willingness to slow down and practice compassion once again


Compassion, acted upon, IS a leadership competency – for all who want to lead us toward better versions of our organizations, our communities, our nation, and ourselves.

I can imagine that there may be some discomfort at these suggestions - - imagining personal and organizational complacency or worse ignoring or “normalizing” immoral behavior.  That is not the case at all.  Compassion is an ACTION requiring us to live in integrity with our values while also challenging our belief that “we have the monopoly on the truth”.  Calling on us “first to understand, then to be understood”.  It is only here that we will shift from the persistence of “want”, feelings of scarcity and fear of “otherness” to capture the possibility, abundance, innovation and even joy in our differences.

This is a tall order – but can we as leaders, as humans, hope for or work for any less?


A variety of resources for additional contemplation: