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The Day After Christmas: 5 Unexpected Leadership Lessons

How job loss, family and moving forward became part of my leadership narrative

The day after Christmas might mean lazing around in your pajamas, hitting the day after Christmas sales, playing your new video game over and over or getting back to the grind. On this day after Christmas, I want to revisit one that sticks in my memory and has led to some of the most significant leadership lessons of my adult life.

Seventeen years ago, the day after Christmas was the day I made an appointment at the bridal salon to try on wedding dresses. I awoke in my childhood bedroom in Republic, Ohio, ready to take this exciting trip to Columbus, Ohio.  

That same morning, the local newspaper, the Tiffin Advertiser-Tribune, had a headline that read something like this “National Machinery to Close”. National Machinery was the company where my dad worked. This was a surprise to all of us and was how my dad learned he was losing his job of 25 years. On the front page of the newspaper. The day after Christmas. The day he was taking his youngest daughter to Columbus to try on wedding dresses.  

Even though the newspaper headline didn’t come with specific details, everyone in my family knew this meant big changes. Security, gone. Loyalty, gone. Sense of contribution, gone. 

I don’t think we ever considered canceling the wedding dress shopping trip, but I can tell you that day became bigger than saying “yes” to a dress.

I ultimately picked the first dress I tried on, much to the dismay of the men in the family, who had big plans for the day while the women shopped. I believe I picked out that dress because it was truly my favorite and fit my wedding day vision, but perhaps part of me also wanted to focus on the bigger picture of that time. 

Needless to say, this was a tough time for my family. My sister and I were wrapping up college and getting married, contributing to our family’s financial strain; however, this was bigger than a financial impact. It was about loss of identity that comes from working for a company for 25 years – sometimes pulling the overnight shift, occasionally taking on overtime, and at times, balancing the factory job while working on the family farm.

This event caused disconnection in a community where everyone knew everyone else’s business, but somehow didn’t know how to process one another’s pain. As a family, we didn’t even know how to talk about and process this major life event.  It caused lots of questioning about what to do next in a small town where suddenly many people were faced with the similar fate of unemployment.  

This event has created ripples through my entire professional career. 

Here are the lessons I’ve taken with me:

  1. Don’t surprise people with life-altering news. No one should have to learn that their job is being eliminated through a front-page newspaper story. Yes, there are times that decisions about workforce reductions need to be made quickly and no one wants the workforce to shut down amidst rumors of downsizing, however professional adults are likely to respond more favorably to advanced notice about significant job changes than a surprise newspaper headline. 
  2. It’s not just the worker who is affected. Whenever anything happens at a workplace, whether it be as extreme as job elimination or not, there is a ripple effect to the family, friends, and community of the person impacted. I was the child of the worker in this case and it still had a significant impact on me. Children are listening when their parents lament about a bad boss or what’s going on at work. Spouses and partners are a support system and some are better equipped than others to be there during rough patches. The stories we tell ourselves about managers and bosses start well before we take our first job. 
  3. Meaning at work matters. Whether you are one of a dozen workers on an assembly line or the top executive of a Fortune 500, coming home at the end of the day knowing you made a contribution matters. As we satisfy our lower-level needs on Maslow’s hierarchy (food, shelter, safety, family), we are left to tap into the higher-level needs of esteem and self-actualization. The psychological impact can be significant when a key place that enables these to happen, the workplace, is removed from the equation. Whether we want to admit it or not, our work helps define us. I think this is why I became a coach. I’ve always had a desire to connect personally to my work and have a gift for helping other people connect to what matters to them and how it maps to a bigger picture. When we finally grasp that we are bigger than our vocation, but that our work matters, we find this magical intersection where we can be happy and fulfilled. And this is all easier said than done.
  4. Empathy is everything during rough times. Whenever I hear that a round of layoffs might be coming, I get a knot in my stomach. I have many friends and colleagues who are facing job elimination right now. My tendency is to want to take away their pain because I see the face of my dad when I’m with them. Instead, I sit in silence with them if that is what is needed. Or, I allow them to vent. Or, I review their resume. Showing up for someone going through a rough time the way they need you to, not how you need to, matters. 
  5. Always be learning and growing. I’ve never been personally fearful that my job would be eliminated, but I’ve always had a back-up plan to the back-up plan to the back-up plan. It’s not surprising given that my dad’s job loss came when I was a senior in college only beginning my professional career. I have been learning and growing and taking on more my entire professional life. Part of it is because it fuels me. Part of it is likely motivated by this experience that started the day after Christmas 17 years ago.  

On this day after Christmas, I feel fortunate to wake up in a house that Santa visited. I’ll check out the after Christmas sales at the mall. I’ll enjoy the leftover prime rib and chocolate cream pie. More than anything, I’ll appreciate these leadership lessons from a day after Christmas that blended the best and worst times a family can face together. 

What “day after Christmas” story are you carrying around that has had an impact on you? 

Is this story holding you back or propelling you forward? 

What can you to do use this story to your advantage?

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