Communication Leadership Personal Development Problem solving Travel

Leadership lessons from a forgotten suitcase

Written by Lisa Holden Rovers

It isn’t that difficult to find a leadership lesson in our every day experiences or mishaps.  A few years ago, I found that you can even learn a leadership lesson from a suitcase! Here is the story of the lesson I learned.  I share it with you, with the hope that you too may spend time reflecting on your own leadership lessons that life has to teach.

At the end of a rather busy work week, my husband and I were busy packing and rushing to head out the door for a four-day mini-vacation.  We had a total of 30 minutes to get ourselves organized and off in record time, as we headed to a family-reunion.

Eight hours later, we arrived at our destination at 1:00 am.  My husband unpacked our vehicle, then turned to me and said, “Where is your suitcase?”.  To which I quipped, “If it isn’t in the car then it is at the top of the stairs at home.”

We couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. You see our motto when travelling is this:  If we forget anything, we can get it when we get there.  But, we hadn’t expected to forget a whole suitcase.

Coach John Wooden highlights that “above all things, life is about learning – and about using those lessons to become a better employer, better employee, better parent, better sibling, better friend, better neighbour, better steward of our blessings”.

It is with this spirit that I humbly laugh at myself and share five leadership lessons drawn from my forgotten suitcase experience.

Lesson #1 – Communication is at the heart of good leadership.  If I told my husband “My suitcase is at the top of the stairs, can you please pack it?” instead of assuming he would look for it, this entire situation may have been avoided.  A good leader clearly communicates their requests and does not make assumptions or leave key actions to chance.  Where are the opportunities for you to clarify your assumptions within the team you lead?

Lesson #2 – A good leader checks in with the team to avoid any last minute mishaps.  Perhaps if I had asked “What have we missed?”, we may have thought of my lonely suitcase.  In a course on Planning and Organizing Your Team’s Work, I teach that open-ended questions are much more effective than closed-ended ones to explore what your team thinks and needs.  When you ask a closed-ended question like, “Did we miss anything?”, the reply is usually “No.”  When you ask, “What have we missed?”, it causes your team to pause and reflect on what the answer could be.  It is much more powerful, as the question assumes you have missed something.

Lesson #3 – Life can be simplified by creating systems and processes.  Next time I plan a trip, I will create a checklist of items to take and that list will be the very last thing we check before heading out the door.  If we create it once, we can refer to it time and time again.  Systems and processes like these can make you and your teams’ work lives so much easier.  I know many of my clients find it difficult to find the time to create structures like this, but when they do, they learn that they save time.  What is a simple system you can create today that would help minimize the chance of something falling through the cracks?

Lesson #4 A good leader is resourceful when things go wrong.  Once we realized what happened, I immediately identified what we needed to get through the evening.  I asked the hotel to provide some toiletry items and relied on family members for other needed items.  The next morning, we planned our whirlwind shopping trip for other essentials.  When problems occur within your team, are you a leader they can count on to keep a cool head and problem-solve the immediate issues, and then create a plan going forward?

Lesson #5When things go wrong (as they sometimes will), you have a choice on how you respond to the situation.  I could easily have chosen to blame my husband or be embarrassed by the situation, or let the situation ruin our holiday.  Instead, we both took it all in good humour, laughed at ourselves, and created a plan of action.  How can you humanize the challenges that you and the team face when mishaps occur?  One suggestion I encourage my clients to do, when they make a mistake, is to take the advice of public speaker, Loretta Laroche, and put on your clown nose and say “Ta Da!”

So, the next time you experience a leadership mishap, laugh at yourself for being human, take personal responsibility, and identify the lessons to be learned from your experience.  Your team will thank you for it.

About the author

Lisa Holden Rovers

Lisa Holden Rovers is the Founder of Workplace Matters, where she serves as a powerful catalyst for business leaders and career professionals. She has coached and trained hundreds of emerging and veteran leaders to discover their strengths, develop an influential leadership style, and take action to achieve their goals.

Lisa has been personally mentored and trained by some of the masters in the personal development industry, most notable of which is internationally recognized leadership authority, John C. Maxwell. Maxwell’s core philosophy, “Everything rises and falls on leadership” is a key message Lisa shares with clients through her coaching, training, facilitation, and speaking engagements.

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