6 Leadership Skills To Help You Navigate Family Holidays

The leadership skills you use every day can help ease holiday friction.


You’ve made it this far, but there are still a couple more days of gatherings and get-togethers before January gets here in all its promise and austerity. Between now and then, you likely have family gatherings, reunions, and cocktail parties. And while that all seems merry and bright, very often these gatherings–coupled with holiday stress, family dynamics, and perhaps a few cocktails–end up tense and awkward.


It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re facing a few parties and events with that may be complicated or contentious, bring the same leadership A-game that you’d bring to a tough situation at the office, says leadership expert and keynote speaker Marilyn Sherman, founder of Upfront Presentations

“It’s important to recognize that this is the time of year that there’s definitely a heightened sensitivity, emotionally,” she says. But the good news is that the same skills that serve you well in your career can make your holiday season go a little more smoothly.

Manage your expectations

It’s not unusual to have inflated expectations for everything to be perfect and heartwarming—but that just isn’t realistic, says leadership expert and speaker Jenni Catron, author of The Four Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership: Leading from Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. It’s okay if your gathering looks more like Christmas Vacation than a Hallmark movie. Don’t try to force people or situations to be what they’re not.

Focus on the outcome

Think about what your goal is. Are you trying to get through the weekend with as little friction as possible or emerge from your family’s holiday party unscathed? Put together a plan to make it happen, says leadership expert Ryan Eller who runs leadership-building camps.

If you know that Aunt Phyllis is going to start talking about politics over dinner or the party gets ugly after 10 p.m., plan specific steps or strategies for staying above the fray. It may seem simplistic to grab a seat away from the armchair pundit or to have an excuse to leave by 9:30 p.m. However, by being intentional instead of casual about such details, you can ensure you have the outcome you want, he says.


Keep emotions in check

Think about potential pitfalls ahead of your event. Can you count on your mother-in-law to make a passive-aggressive remark? Use the same methods of keeping cool that you do when you’re dealing with a difficult co-worker, Eller says.

“You control your reactions. You control you,” he says. Too often, we forget that in informal settings. If someone gets under your skin, fake a phone call or go for a quick walk to cool off.

Use your understanding of personality profiles

Most people who have reached a level of leadership has spent some time studying—or at least becoming familiar with—different personality types, Sherman says. But have you ever stopped to consider how these attributes work in family dynamics? Your annoying cousin may just have a different communication style or method of communicating. Think about these people and what motivates them to behave the way they do, she says.

Practice good self-care

You may be tired from travel, year-end work obligations, and holiday stress. And when you’re tired and not feeling your best, you may find yourself getting angry or irritated more quickly, Catron says. Just as you would during a stressful work time, take care of yourself by managing your stress, exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep.

Think outside of yourself

Sherman says that finding time around the holidays for servant leadership can also be a powerful way to put things in perspective. Volunteer to work on a cause that’s important to you.


“We get so caught up in the holidays that we don’t realize what kind of position we really have in the world,” she says. Get in touch with true need and you may find yourself a little less bothered by and a little more grateful for the challenging people in your life, she says.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites