Leadership 101: The Most Powerful Words You Want From Any Leader

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“All I want is for someone, sometime, just one time, to say thank you.”

She works late every night, and pulls long hours. This particular morning she left home at 5:30 to make sure she got in to prepare for the big meeting. She left at 8 that night to go home.

As she wistfully told me that story, that first statement about wanting somebody to say “thanks” caught my ear.

I have a granddaughter named Peyton She is 2-years-old and is learning to talk. She stayed with us a few weekends ago, and her favorite phrase now is “THANK YOU.” As she followed my wife and I around the house, everything we did together came back with those two words.

Weighty words for a leader

Thank you! These are welcome words to all of us. A thank you communicates that we are valued and appreciated. Not receiving a thank you suggests that you are taken for granted.

That is why an expression of thanks can make all the difference in a business relationship.

We were all taught as youngsters that when someone does or gives something, we always say thank you.

Those two words carry a lot of weight if you are a leader. Those two words are the most powerful words in your leadership tool kit.

So my question is this: if your parents stressed the thank yous at an early age, what happened as you got older? Did you forget, or did you just become so jaded and worn out that you forgot the pleasantries?

Such pleasantries — such as a “good morning!” with meaning and “how are you?” — are pretty basic. There is no need for a book on leadership or a seminar on being a great leader if you can’t pass that simple benchmark.

Managing, and being polite, is not rocket science

If you can’t get that right, you should be sent to the back of the line to start over again.

Managing people is not rocket science. If you have ever had a bad manager and you were repulsed by some of the things that they did, why would you repeat it?

The best leadership training, however, is to work for someone that is ill equipped to be a manager. That is a daily, eight hour seminar. I often wondered how they would respond if the people they were dealing with was one of their loved ones.

When I worked in training and development for IBM, one of my trainiers said that sometimes she would lose patience and become rude when she had someone in her class that just did not get it. My response was, what if I had your mother or father in a class and I was rude to them? Better still, what if your mother were in that class you taught? That brought no response — but I did see the lights go on.

Everyone we interact with is someone’s daughter, brother, mother, or father. If you would want them to be treated fairly and with respect, then you pay it forward.

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Management 101 – The niceties of manners

The thank you primer: Here are some tips you can use to develop the profitable habit of saying “thank you” to your customers, employees or whomever you deal with.

  • Be specific in your thanks. Do a thank you that will be remembered. Be as specific as possible. Make it like Velcro. It’s OK to say, “thank you for everything,” but why not get specific and say, “thank you so much for taking charge of that project. I know that you came in early and stayed late throughout. I appreciate it very much.” My value walk away: be specific, detailed, and say why.
  • Step back in time. The handwritten note is a tool that should be used more often. I was told by someone that had just received a job offer that she found out that the hiring manager felt that both candidates came up about even. However, my friend took the time to write a beautiful thank you card to the hiring manger, and that was what made the difference.

Why is the thank you note so powerful? I think that as technology has taken over our lives, people are increasingly starved for the personal touches like handwriting notes or thank you cards.

That thank you note does not have to be long, just a note to show your heart felt appreciation. Just say, “I want you to know that I notice the extra that you took in getting our meeting together, and I want you to know that I appreciate it and just want to say thank you.”

People used to be a lot more polite than they are now. If someone forgot a “please” or a “thank you,” it would have been considered extremely rude.

Setting an example by being an example

Today’s world is a lot different. We have all been to stores where the cashier didn’t say a word and barely acknowledge your presence. We have all, in some way, encountered rude behavior like this.

My antidote is to say “thank you” to someone when it should have been the other way around. Sometimes, the person who should have said thanks will catch themselves and respond accordingly, although there are some that will never respond.

While there’s not much we can do to change the behavior of other people, there is a lot we can do by being good examples ourselves. Always pay it forward is my motto.

So if you are leading people in an organization, I ask you to remember what you were taught as a child. My good friend, China Gorman, told the story that she would always keep thank you cards at the ready and would use them to send a quick note to people within the organization that she had interacted with.

So this week, just remember your manners and what your parents drilled into you.

And, I would be remiss if I forgot to say, “Thank you for reading.”

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


19 Comments on “Leadership 101: The Most Powerful Words You Want From Any Leader

  1. Agree Ron. I used to think it was common sense to say “thank you” but that is not the case. 
    And with some managers and leaders, they also can simply be too consumed or busy to think about it at the time and when they do, they might feel it is too late, since too much time has passed. It is never too late and I like the reminder of being “specific” to what you are thanking people for.Steve

  2. Great article Ron.  It really is amazing how many people lose perspective once they get older or get a fancy title.  This is a great reminder to all. 

  3. I love your point that the best leadership training is to work for someone ill equipped to be a leader. The point at which I learned the value of good leadership was when I began to work for a bad leader…A steep learning curve, whose lessons have never been forgotten!

  4. Glad to see this article.  I was fortunate to have had a great mentor at my first job who emphasized the importance of being polite and saying thank you. To this day, that has been my great learning and I do make it a point to send thank you notes as much as I can. Goes a long way.. Thank you, Ron, for this great article.

  5. Ability to see how things are accomplished, humility and grace go far.  Leadership is the ability to engage and excit others to follow, not the ability to push and prod them down the road. Good artticle.  Thank you for writing and sharing.

  6. This applies to everyone, also those not in leadership. And I think that as any person starts to apply this, it would not only make the world of the people around them a bit brighter, but most of all their own daily life.
    I’ll try to apply this more and more in my daily life, although I am not in a leadership position! 🙂

  7. Sometimes you just need to thank your bad manager for showing you what is not right.  After you leave him/her, of course.  It’s really amazing that we forget Thank You as we move up the ladder.  Vanity or ignorance? 

  8. “The best leadership training, however, is to work for someone that is ill equipped to be a manager.” Very true – I’ve learned a lot by observing, and analyzing, the actions of my managers, both good & bad.

  9. Oddly enough, I made a comment on another post about the need for leaders to show their appreciation and how that is one of the most critical (yet often overlooked) traits required of an effective leader.  People “want” to feel their contribution and efforts were important and recognized.  Comments that focus on the person and the specific task performed create intimacy and loyalty; comments that focus on a general appreciation are also valuable when there has been no specific “job well done” worthy of singular note, because it serves as a reminder that “everything” they accomplished is necessary and that you recognize they are a vital part of the team.

  10. One of the most powerful things a leaders can do is simply encourage his or her people. Here’s a funny video of one way to do so (though it is not recommended).

  11. Ron, what a great piece. When in a leadership position, it is important to remember to lead by example. A simple, “thank you” or “nice job” goes a long way and means a lot to an employee—especially when the feedback is timely, specific and personalized. Invest time in building morale with a kind word of encouragement.

  12. Saying “Thank you”  cascades a host of reactions – it means that the manager has enough confidence that he/she can share with others; it means that the manager has the mental capacity to think of others and not just his/her own tasks; it means that the subodinate will feel a connection to the manager that is the beginning of loyalty; the fear factor in the subordiante will be reduced; the subordiante will have the mental freedom to think about doing something well again, and not just worry how he/she is peceived by the manager – we spend so much time worrying about how we are thought of! A simple thoughtful polite remark will loosen the ties of fear and allow work to get done.

  13. In leadership training, one often reads about “formal leadership power” and “informal leadership power.” For years, I waited for a formal leadership role in order to lead.

    My colleagues began perceiving me as a leader (without the formal role) when I began saying “thank-you.” I notice how the strong, fit men were called on to do extra duties during camp week. I noticed how teaching assistants anticipated teacher needs. I noticed how my students improved after work with specialists.

    Noticing contributions and thanking people for their help is crucial. I now have a formal leadership role, but hope to never forget that lesson.

    Thanks for the reminder!
    Janet | expateducator.com

  14. So often leaders forget to show their teams any appreciation. But the truth is that saying thank you is a baseline behavior. I think that when people are in positions of power, we forget because we’re more focused on what needs to be done, rather than what’s already been done. Even as a parent, I have to remind myself to say thank you to my children when they do what’s been asked. However, I’ve noticed that when I say please and thank you, they’re more likely to do a better and better job on repeated tasks and not groan when I give them something else to do. 

    No one wants to be taken for granted. And poor behavior or a lack of basic manners makes for poor leadership. Simple as that.

  15. The leader should constantly be thinking ‘ Ask not what I can do for students. Ask what students can do for us. They are our future. Let them show us the way ‘. A quote from JFK. No. A philosophy from all educators, facilitators and leaders.

  16. One of the lousiest bosses I ever had told me not to expect thank you’s from him. He said that “Satisfaction comes from within”. I hope that he is enjoying his forced early retirement…

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