This being the occasion of Public Service Appreciation Week, it seems appropriate to take a moment and consider the act of appreciation, from the perspective of a leader. The power of appreciation is an awesome thing to behold. As young children, we were taught that “please” and “thank you” were required elements of just about every sentence we uttered till we left the home to make our way in the world. After a while, it becomes somewhat automatic to say, and to hear. In your team dynamic however, there is a large sensory gap between ritually thanking someone, and for delivering words of appreciation. One of the many things on the daily plate of a leader is to make the time for acknowledging people and performance. The genuine expressions of the emotion of gratitude between humans is what keeps people coming back day after day to persevere through the usual trials.
After a 30 year career in public service, it is possible to become jaded about the work we do, and for whom we do it. Most of the feedback we get is self-generated, in the way of appraisals, raises, promotions, assignments, or awards. There is a barrier, sometimes necessary, between the recipients of our work and us. The public service concept is not set up for the public to directly thank or reward those who serve them. In fact, it goes beyond discouragement of such activity and potentially scandalizes it. Accepting any token of gratitude for a job well done from the public could be the end of your career.
As leaders then, it is your mission to ensure that appreciation is expressed, find ways to do it, and ensure that as a value of your organization, it is passed on through you to those who follow. You need to do that often in the face of messages of discouragement from those we serve. One method that I have used throughout the years is simple reflection on all the things a career in public service has given me, and all the opportunities that were made possible. Regardless of what feedback I may get from day-to-day, my decision to move in the direction of public service set me on a path to a life that is a daily reminder of how lucky we all are sometimes. It has also given me innumerable views into lives where luck may have not been present. I am appreciative every time I walk through the door to start my day.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer and novelist in 19th century Russia. At 24, he was the most well-known and admired writing intellectual in St. Petersburg, then the capital of the Russian monarchy. Dostoyevsky wrote in his memoirs that during this time, he would spend days agonizing over the most simple of words and would could take months to finish a paragraph. His association with dissidents and anti-government types soon landed him in a jail cell, to his astonishment. After eight months in prison, he was taken along with many others and driven by carriage to the center of town. All the prisoners were then taken from the carriage and brought before the hangman’s scaffold. As the prisoners waited, bound, an officer came forward and read to the assembled crowd that all of the men were condemned to death for plotting to overthrow the government, and would be shot that day. Dostoyevsky could see the golden spires of a church, gleaming under the sunlight. At that moment, a cloud passed between the sun and the church, and the spire turned dark black, gleaming no longer. Dostoyevsky realized then that his life was mere minutes away from passing into the black as well. He resolved then to himself that if by some miracle, his life did not end, that he was not killed that day, that each remaining minute of his life would become an eternity, to be cherished. He was selected to be first, and was stood in front of the soldiers, with a hood over his head. As he heard the soldiers preparing their rifles, he heard the drum of hoofbeats getting closer. At that moment, a horse and rider appeared in the square and made straight for the condemned. He bore a message from the Czar commuting all the death sentences to imprisonment, followed by a term of military service. Dostoyevsky spent the next four years in prison but during that time, he began writing novels in his head. When he was released, he began writing at a furious pace, remarking “life is a gift…every minute could have been an eternity of happiness…”. He wrote consistently for the next 30 years, publishing some of the most famous works in literature.
Dostoyevsky’s epiphany on the verge of losing his life is a moment singular to him, but is also an example of what it takes sometimes to realize how fortunate we all are and what gifts we have been given. The honor of serving the public is one that approximately 94% of the U.S. population will not know. You should feel proud of what you do, and take steps to nurture that pride in your team.
Last year, I came across a short video describing a radical new treatment for cancer. I am not exactly sure how I got to this link, but the three minutes have become priceless to me whenever I am in need of motivation, or when I am inclined to lose focus on being appreciative. When I think of the family in this video, their daily mindset, their desire for someone, anyone, to tell them that they will get another day, another week, another month, to see their daughter alive and well, it puts a lot of things in perspective,
Appreciate where you are, what you do, and who you are, every single day. When you look back on your career, it will be the people you worked with that you remember, who shared your experience. Tell them now, and them often.