Six Leadership Lessons from Your Family Vacation

In many ways, leadership can be seen as taking a team on a journey. Sometimes it’s easiest to see complicated tasks through parables, and what could be more familiar than a family trip?

Imagine, summertime is here, and you have a surprise for your family. You pull up to the house in your brand new mini-van and call the family out to take a look. Your spouse nods with approval, having taken part in the decision. Your kids are excited to have a new car– the old one was so beat up.

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION, Anthony Michael Hall, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Dana Barron, 1983
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, Anthony Michael Hall, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Dana Barron, 1983

“Pack your bags,” you grin, “We’re going on a trip!” The first question your family will ask is, “Where are we going?”  

Our first lesson in leadership is to know where you are going.  In other words, have a vision. Your family doesn’t want to pack their bags to drive in circles for two weeks.  They want to know where they are going, how long it will take to get there, and how to pack. Without a destination, expect an anxious and quickly frustrated family. A manager might be able to keep the status quo; a leader has to lead, and that requires having a vision, a goal, or a destination in mind.

“We are crossing this great country of ours, heading to California!” you announce proudly, expecting a shout of excitement. Your teenage daughter rolls her eyes.  Your 12-year-old son jumps for joy and says,“Yes! We’re going to Disney Land!” Your 9-year-old daughter says, “I have a soccer game on Thursday and Becky’s party is on Sunday!” Your 5-year-old son says, “How long is that going to take?” and your 3-year-old asks, “Can I bring toys?”

As you can see, lesson two is that people will react differently to your vision. Some people will love it and some will hate it; some will be skeptical, some curious, some optimistic and enthusiastic; some will want to stay mired in details rather than seeing the big picture; and others will think they understand your vision, but they actually don’t. All of their reactions are normal and should be addressed with confidence, patience and optimism.

You are trying to do something nice for your family and before you have even gotten everyone in the van, you are already encountering resistance. It might be tempting to ‘lay down the law,’ saying something like, “I’m the parent here, now do what I say!” This might be the quickest and simplest way to get things done- but does it get your family ready to enjoy a wonderful vacation? To build good memories and intimacy, it might be better to take a different approach.

“Ok, everyone,” you announce, “this trip is going to be great for all of us – because it’s not just about California, it’s about the trip! We are all going to get to pick places where we will stop along the way. Everyone is going to have a say and a choice to do something that is just for them.”  

Lesson three is to remember: It’s not just about the destination, it’s about the journey. Just as the success of your vacation depends on the happiness of your family, the success of your institution depends on the happiness of your employees. Happy employees work harder, spread optimism, and support you and your mission. Unhappy employees feed on each other’s negativity, spreading discord and rebellion.  On a cross country trip, do whatever you can to get the family singing together and not bickering in the back!

You get the buy-in from your family, they pack their bags, get in the van, and you are off! It’s a long trip—longer than you expected. You are committed to building trust and intimacy on your journey, to stopping along the way to meet the needs of individual family members, and to enjoying the ride. But it’s taking a long, long time. You think about skipping some stops on the itinerary, just to get there faster.

Lesson four: Change takes a long time. Sometimes you have to move slow to move fast. That means that even if  your family is tired of driving and you just want to get there already, you have to be very careful before you strike one of your kids’ planned stops from the itinerary. You might get to your destination faster, but at what cost? Will someone feel alienated, forgotten, or disrespected? How will that affect the family in the long term? Often it’s worth taking the extra time to make sure everyone gets his/her needs met, even if it takes a little longer.

You decide to take one extra day and visit an attraction that the whole family will appreciate. You wake up the next morning to discover that someone hit your car while you were all sleeping. It needs to be repaired.  The attraction will be closed by the time you get there. The family is cranky and fed up.  They are bickering with each other and everyone seems to think it’s all your fault.  Even your supportive spouse thinks you are botching things terribly. You have a speech prepared in your head that goes something like,“You lousy ingrates! I’ve done all of this for you, and none of this is my fault, and the least you could do is have a positive attitude or shut up!”

Lesson five is that you are the parent.  As a leader, and the one with real power in your institution, you are not allowed to react in anger. Absurd mishaps, unintended diversions, and personal conflicts will happen. When they do, remember that as a leader, you are being paid to be the adult. Your job is to be a good listener, remain positive, and look for solutions without resentment, blame or the need to be thanked. You might have good reasons to be frustrated, but it is your journey, and you have to see it through with unshakable optimism, faith, and responsibility. Allowing yourself to express anger won’t get you any closer to your destination, and it will undermine the point of your entire trip.

The final lesson in leadership from our hypothetical family vacation is to take care of yourself. Make time to exercise, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. If you skip meals, stay up late, and try to drive all day without a break, chances are much higher that you’ll fall asleep at the wheel, strain your back, or explode at a family member who asks a silly question. Leadership is an emotional job; it requires making difficult decisions and having intense conversations every day.  To be a great leader, you need to be at your best. No one deserves to deal with a tired, hungry, stressed, dehydrated, cranky you!  Never underestimate the relationship between your body and your brain, so make taking care of yourself a priority.

As you pull into the driveway of your home, you think back on your trip- not just on the destination, but on everything that happened along the way.  Your family is happier, stronger, and looking forward to the next adventure. Where do you want to go next?