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10 Thanksgiving Lessons in Leadership that Last Way Longer than the Turkey

We’ve got something we’d like you to consider in this season of holiday gatherings: Thanksgiving dinner is actually an awesome metaphor for leadership and life. Check out our ten ways to become a better leader by taking a few lessons from Turkey Day:

  1. Let people know what to expect. There’s comfort in the known. It’s nice when holiday traditions roll around. Maybe it’s as specific as Aunt Irma’s amazing pumpkin custard, your great-grandmother’s table linens and your brother’s Cajun deep-fried turkey—or perhaps more generally, you know at the very least there will always be mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and pecan pie. As a leader, your team should know as much as possible about what to expect when they work with you, as well as what to expect when taking on new projects or accepting particular roles. When followers aren’t spending time and energy feeling uncertain, they’re more likely to relax and bring their best selves to the table.
  2. But…also mix things up a little and try a something new. While it is nice for most people to have a good idea of what’s being served, it’s also wonderful to slip in something a bit different or unexpected to tempt the taste buds. Consistency is important, but if we never try new things, we’ll never know what we’re missing. Leaders have an obligation to push their teams to think differently, challenge what they already know and innovate. How would have you known Brussels sprouts are actually amazing when roasted with cranberries and bacon, unless someone brought them to potluck Friendsgiving Dinner? Push your team members to bring new ideas forward—and then, for goodness sakes, try them.
  3. Be prepared, according to plan. If you’re in charge of the holiday gathering, you’d better have a pretty solid idea of how the day needs to flow. Be prepared for the oven to breathe its last breath, the turkey to remain inexplicably frozen after thawing for two days, or a traffic snarl to delay your out of town guests by two hours. When you’ve thought through in advance how things should play out, considered what to do if the situation goes awry and can calmly communicate that to everyone else, you’re much less likely to fall prey to crippling anxiety and start unproductively snapping at others. Managing a work team is no different.
  4. Assign roles and make sure they’re clear. Avoid that potential Thanksgiving nightmare of four different marshmallow salads arriving in the hands of your guests—or your siblings squabbling in the kitchen over how mom always made the gravy. Clearly communicate to everyone who is responsible for what, make that known to others on your team along with instructions for how and when to deliver it all, and then enjoy watching everyone contribute what they do best.
  5. Recognize you can’t win them all. Sometimes the pie crust edges burn beyond recognition, you forget to make the stuffing gluten free and you can’t find the woodland creature centerpiece your son made in 4th grade that always adorns the holiday table. Someone is not going to be 100% happy about every single thing, and that’s life. Give every occasion your very best efforts, and then if something disappointing happens, accept it with grace and move on. Teach your team to do the same. When you practice handling small losses well, it makes it infinitely easier to maintain your composure when the really tough things inevitably happen.
  6. Make sure there’s extra, just in case. You open the door to greet your dinner guests, and guess what? There’s two unanticipated and hungry plus-ones tagging along with your twin sisters, home on fall break from college. Rather than panic because you don’t have enough food or places to sit, welcome them warmly and seize the opportunity to get to know someone new. If you always keep a little more aside than what you think you have to have—whether that’s your time or resources— you’re not left in a bad position when the unexpected comes up (and it will.) Teach your teams to give themselves needed wiggle room whenever possible; you never know when you really will need to dip into your reserves.
  7. Know when enough is enough. Three helpings of sweet potato casserole and then a way-too-big slice of turtle cheesecake is probably not going to end comfortably. It’s important to know when to say when. Just like holiday heaping helpings, a solid leader knows when to call something quits and move on. It’s also important that your team members feel empowered to tell you when something needs to stop or change direction.
  8. Have a solid clean-up strategy. The feeding frenzy is over and the kitchen and dining room are devastated. If everyone has wandered off to watch football, sleep off the turkey-induced tryptophan or shop for Black Friday deals…and left you to slog through the chaos on your own, you’re doing it totally wrong. There will be messes and a good leader doesn’t tackle them alone. Your team should have an understanding of how to react when things get ugly and have specific responsibilities for how each person contributes to getting things back on track. When everyone knows what needs to be done and is expected to participate, it leaves little room for complaining or second-guessing how others are doing the work.
  9. Express your thanks abundantly. Whether it’s expressed in prayer or it’s everyone going around the table stating what they feel most thankful for, there are ALWAYS things to celebrate. If you’re a guest at someone else’s table, thank your host for working so hard and pouring so much love into making a memorable meal. If you’re a host and are surrounded by close friends and family or even complete strangers, take a moment to thank each person sincerely for being a special, important part of your gathering. As a leader, it is a critical part of your job to ensure others feel appreciated, acknowledged and valuable. It takes so little time to regularly let others know that you see what they contribute and that your team would not be the same without them and their efforts.
  10. Have fun. Sure, it’s stressful getting fourteen different dishes onto the table at the exact perfect moment while simultaneously listening (and contributing) to a passionate argument in the living room about whether or not Christmas decorations should be up before or after Thanksgiving. But under it all, those gathered around you are people with senses of humor, more than a few great stories and probably a taste of adventure. Your coworkers do, too—and it’s important to remember to inject some fun and occasional spontaneity into the workplace. People who can relax and enjoy each other’s company are much more likely to work well together under the high-pressure situations. Get to know each other and enjoy the ride.

At Milestone Leadership, we believe leaders worth following recognize that every day—not just Thanksgiving—merits acts of showing genuine appreciation, the celebration of being part of something bigger than self, and the careful preparation that leads to a group of people achieving something complex and occasionally spectacular. May your holiday be special and blessed.


Kelly Hale Syer
Milestone Leadership

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