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LEADERSHIP: The hidden power of giving awards

LEADERSHIP: The hidden power of giving awards

By Heidi Marttila-Losure, with additional reporting by Doug Card, Britton Journal; Elizabeth “Sam” Grosz; and Ken Schmierer

Honoring leaders, as many Dakota communites do, seems like a nice thing to do for the recipient. But somewhat surprisingly, giving an award can be just as beneficial to the giver, and to the broader community.

The chemistry of giving

One reason that giving awards benefits both recipient and giver is rooted in human biology.

When people receive awards, they actually have a chemical reaction that makes them feel good, as ethnologist and author Simon Sinek described in a 2013 presentation based on his book Leaders Eat Last.

In response to an accomplishment, Sinek says, reward recipients’ bodies release dopamine, a hormone that makes them feel happy and satisfied. If that award comes with the applause of people the recipients respect, then they also get a surge of serotonin, another “feel-good” hormone that is released in moments of pride or recognition.

But the interesting thing is that giving an award also raises the serotonin level of the giver, which also makes the giver feel good. And even those who just witness such an interaction can have a hormone reaction that makes them happier, Sinek says.

An act of unity

Scott Meyer, an entrepreneur and blogger from Brookings, S.D., suggests that giving an award can strengthen relationships in a community in a way that makes future action and progress more likely. “The act of giving recognition empowers the giver and ties the receiver and giver together in their mission,” Meyer wrote in a recent column. (Read another column from Meyer on page 28.)

That larger purpose of community unity underlies many awards of recognition, even if the focus is on the person receiving the award.

“The purpose of the Heart of Dakota Awards is to recognize those that are making a difference,” according to Doug Card, publisher of the Britton Journal and Langford Bugle, which sponsor the awards along with the Britton Area Foundation. “The awards not only give deserved attention to those unsung heroes, but build a pride in community as well.”

Karen Mikkelson, former Heart of Dakota winner for customer service, agreed that the awards have been good for the community. “I’ve always said when you live in a community, you don’t just live there but become a part of it,” she said. “That’s very important for a community to survive.”

The four-part rationale of the Walk of Fame in Ellendale was to give young people in Ellendale inspiration of what they could accomplish, bring pride to the Ellendale community, develop a spirit of camaraderie in Ellendale, and bring attention to Ellendale, according to Ken Schmierer, one of the founders of the Walk of Fame.

“You may notice that our purpose does not consist of rewarding any individual,” Schmierer said. “We feel that these people have received recognition during their lives and do not need additional honors. Our primary purpose is to focus on the community … paying homage to the process in Ellendale that contributed to help make these and others successful.”

The Ellendale community actually decided in 2012 to make that even clearer by honoring “mentors” also—people who played in a role in helping others lead successful lives.

A focus on service

The Delmont Community Club’s award recognizes those who have been very active in the community. “Some people you see everywhere,” said longtime club president Shirley Weisser. “No matter what is going on, they are out there doing something.”

The Heart of Dakota Awards are expressly focused on honoring service to others.

“There are many people in every community that give of their time and talents to make their part of the world a better place,” Card said. “Many of those efforts are under the radar.”

According to Sinek, that service is the basis of leadership: “Leadership comes at a cost. You don’t get to do less work when you get more senior, you have to do more work. And the more work you have to do is put yourself at risk to look after others. That is the anthropological definition of what a leader is,” Sinek said. “Leadership is a choice. It has nothing to do with your position in an organization. If you decide to look after the person to the left of you and the person to the right of you, you have become a leader.”

Recognizing this kind of leadership can serve as inspiration and motivation for others to serve by doing what they can.

“It doesn’t have to be a big thing,” Mikkelson said. “We always say in church, you don’t have to be the preacher or organist. If you make a good batch of cookies—make cookies. Everybody has their talents, and you need the big and the small to make the world go around.”

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