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Give the Gift of Encouragement


This season is the perfect time to give a gift everybody wants—and everyone needs

For more than a decade, I led an organization that put on an elaborate Christmas program each December. It was a big production, with over 250 people participating in more than 20 performances. By the end of the season, everyone who participated was exhausted.

Like any good Christmas show, this one included dozens of children. One particular year as I stood in the wings while the children came off the stage, I saw that they looked tired and a little discouraged. That's when I decided to make it my mission to encourage those children and let them know what a wonderful job they were doing as they came off stage during every show.

"Good job!" I exclaimed as they marched by. "You were wonderful," I said to one child. "I love the way you smiled at the audience," I said to another. In the few seconds I had with them as they filed past me, I showered them with as many sincere compliments as I could.

One Word Can Change a Life

At first, they seemed surprised and a little embarrassed as I praised them. Some looked at the ground or turned red. Only a few smiled. But after a couple of performances, I could see that they were becoming more confident. They began walking taller. More and more of them were smiling. And before long, I could see that every time as they exited the stage, they were looking for me in the wings, hoping and expecting to receive praise for the work they had done. By our final performances, they were jumping around, giving me high-fives, and cheering one another on.

If you are a leader, you should never forget that everyone needs encouragement. And everyone who receives it—young or old, successful or less-than-successful, unknown or famous—is changed by it. It was novelist Mark Twain who said: "One compliment can keep me going for a whole month."

The impact encouragement makes on people can be profound. A word of encouragement from a teacher to a child can change a life. A word of encouragement from a spouse can save a marriage. A word of encouragement from a leader can inspire a person to reach her potential. Like Zig Ziglar says, "You never know when a moment and a few sincere words can have an impact on a life."

Rules to Live By

Even if you don't have an official leadership position or title, you can become a great encourager. Parents can encourage members of their family. Friends can share encouraging words to help someone get through a rough time or to strive for greatness. Wherever you find yourself, you can help to create an environment where people can become their best.

I believe that deep down everyone wants to become an encourager—even the most negative person. We all want to be a positive influence in the lives of others. And we can be. If you want to lift people up and add value to their lives, keep the following in mind.

Encouragers commit themselves to giving others encouragement daily: Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca observed, "Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness." If you want to lift people up, do it daily.

Encouragers know the little difference that separates hurting and helping: The little things you do every day have a greater impact on others than you might think. You hold the power to make another person's life better or worse by the things you do today. Those closest to you—your spouse, children, or parents—are most affected by what you say and do. So are the people you come into contact with every day at work. Use that power wisely.

Encouragers initiate the positive in a negative environment: It's one thing to be positive in a positive or neutral environment. It's another to be an instrument of change in a negative environment. Yet that's what encouragers try to do. Sometimes that requires a kind word, other times it takes action, and occasionally it calls for creativity.

Encouragers understand life is not a dress rehearsal: Here's a quote I've always loved: "I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again." People who lift others don't wait until tomorrow or some other better day to help people. They act now!

Everyone has the potential to become an encourager. You don't have to be rich. You don't have to be a genius. You don't have to have it all together. All you have to do is care about people and initiate.

Make Someone's Day

I've read that 19th century writer Walt Whitman struggled for years to get anyone interested in his poetry. In the midst of his discouragement, Whitman received a life-changing letter from an admirer of his work. The note read: "Dear sir, I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career." It was signed by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Whitman enjoyed a long career and is now considered one of the giants of American literature. But when times were tough, he needed encouragement to keep him going.

During this holiday season, use whatever influence you have to lift up others, encourage them, and help them reach their potential. No act is too small, no kindness too insignificant, no positive word too uninspired. You may make someone's day. Or you may change the course of their life.

John C. Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold over 13 million books. His organizations have trained more than 2 million business, government, and military leaders worldwide. Dr. Maxwell writed My Leadership Perspective for BusinessWeek.com/Managing once a month.

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