Unpack Your Leadership Baggage!

By Stephen Gilliland

Have you ever noticed that it is less fun to unpack your bags after a vacation than it is to pack them before the trip? When we pack our bags we are looking forward to experiencing something new, and possibly the opportunity to shed the weight of our leadership roles, even if only briefly. Unfortunately, we don’t feel the same way about packing our leadership baggage.

A CEO recently told me that what she likes most about starting a new job is that all her “bags are empty.” For many of us, the longer we are in a leadership position (and the higher that position) the more we accumulate leadership baggage. This baggage could be projects that we never have time to get to, seemingly unresolvable conflicts or issues, or difficult people who occupy much more than their share of management attention. The greater our leadership responsibility, the more quickly we accumulate baggage. As leaders, we have good intentions of getting to them but more accumulates than we could ever get to and many of us drag this ever-growing leadership baggage along with us as a constant reminder of everything we are not doing.

I have a ritual before I leave on vacation — on my last day of work I clear my desk. Those who have seen my desk will realize what a daunting task this is. In among all those papers are problems, reminders, work that needs going, and other baggage.

Why do I clear my desk before vacation? Why is it somehow easier then? The comment from the CEO about her bags being empty when starting a new job offered me some insight. I don’t want to carry my leadership baggage on vacation with me. I want to leave with the sense that I can put it all behind me for a brief time and truly enjoy my vacation.

Cleaning my desk is easy right before a vacation. My criterion for what is truly important is much higher and I rapidly am able to sort the critical from all the rest of the stuff. Much like a Saturday every year or two when I really get motivated to clean the garage, I get in “clean-up mode” and start to pitch stuff. I unpack my leader bags. And it feels so GOOD!

I sometimes wonder why I don’t do it more often but have not come up with the answer. I will have to explore that question in a later blog entry. For now, my advice is to start unpacking your leadership baggage!

Stephen Gilliland
Associate Dean, Executive Education

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