top of page

The Thanksgiving Tradition: Like Life and Leadership, It’s Complicated

Like many other feasts, beliefs and rituals, Thanksgiving comes with a mixture of facts and falsehoods. But when you look closely at the story of this national holiday, there are plenty of life lessons to enrich our leadership today.

I’ve spent some time studying the origins of our major November feast. What I uncovered is an array of inconsistencies that contradict the sunny Thanksgiving fantasies that most of us have internalized.

To start, the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts bears almost no resemblance to what most of us consider essential to our modern celebration -- family, food and football.

On that autumn day in 1621, a group of colonists joined with Native inhabitants to share a bountiful meal, but what was it all about? Native Americans had been celebrating the fall harvest with merrymaking and ceremony for centuries before Europeans arrived. It’s plausible that the colonists joined that existing tradition. It’s also possible that the newcomers brought their own celebratory harvest traditions.

Either way, this was hardly a celebration of friendship. More likely, it was an effort to bridge the mistrust that happens when unacquainted groups with unclear agendas meet. Instead of mutual friendship between natives and colonists, the first Thanksgiving was probably an occasion for two wary groups to check each other out.

To be sure, the focus was more on reflecting and connecting than on binging and indulging. They brought what they had -- deer venison, swan, seal, and corn -- but the big draw was the hope for stronger relationships.

Whatever caused the colonists to gather with Native Americans was likely prompted by two specific points of awareness.

The first awareness was the settlers’ sheer gratitude for survival in the face of adversity.

In 1620, an assortment of 102 passengers – motivated by adventurous ambition and desperate to flee religious persecution - endured 66 days of hardship before reaching Plymouth, Massachusetts, far north of their planned destination.

The Mayflower landed in November, and over that first brutal winter, more than half the group died from exposure, scurvy and contagious diseases.

When the next November rolled around, those colonists knew they were fortunate to be alive. They had weathered numerous threats and beaten the odds. As their situation gradually stabilized, their genuine gratitude took hold. If nothing else, the first ceremonial gathering between settlers and natives celebrated the newcomers’ lucky survival.

The second point of awareness for the settlers was recognizing how fortunate they were to have local knowledge to navigate and cultivate an unfamiliar land.

When this motley group of white colonists first arrived, they discovered an occupied territory. Another group of humans – with different skin pigmentation, cultures and ways of life – had centuries of experience in this “new” world.

The first encounters were tense and tentative. Difference was regarded as threat. With their rations dwindling, small scouting bands of colonists raided the corn and bean storage plots of those they termed “barbarians.”

As you might imagine, that unprovoked thievery didn’t sit well. Nor did the growing fatalities suffered by a native population that was unprotected from European-borne diseases such as smallpox, measles and scarlet fever.

As suspicion replaced curiosity, the stage was set for animosity and war.

Disaster was averted in part because of the presence of an English-speaking native nicknamed Squanto, who acted as a liaison between the two races. During a potentially explosive period, Squanto acted as interpreter, diplomat and guide. His skillful straddling of two cultures helped bridge mistrust and fear.

Squanto educated the colonists on how to grow corn and find fish, and helped them forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe. It was a bond that supposedly endured for more than 50 years, one of the few examples of peaceful co-existence between Europeans and Native Americans.

What can leaders and parents learn from examining the tangled roots of Thanksgiving? Consider four lessons:

Lesson #1: The Colonist Factor. When you enter a family or work system for the first time, focus more on listening and learning than on taking over. Question the labels you place on people you don’t know. Catch any tendency to see yourself as superior. Since you’re new on the block, demonstrate good will, and give the relationship time to develop.

Lesson #2: The Bridge Factor. No one can definitively assess Squanto’s motives, but most historians agree he acted as a pivotal bridge between two cultures. To what extent do you function as a diplomat and guide? As a leader, can you act as a bridge between ignorance and understanding, between owner and employee, between so-called villains and so-called victims?

Lesson #3: The Resilience Factor. Resilience means bouncing back from hardship and extracting gratitude from adversity. What have you been up against during the past year? Have you found a way to turn a physical health problem, a relationship loss or a personal disappointment into a valuable lesson? Are the issues you complain about really that serious?

Lesson #4: The Luck Factor. To deepen your perspective, acknowledge the obvious: “I’m lucky to be alive.” It requires humility to put hard work and talent into the context of good fortune. Recognizing your own luck sets the table for heartfelt gratitude.

Our heartwarming speculations about the first Thanksgiving bump up against the complex realities of strained relationships and mixed motives. Much like the native peoples and European colonists, as leaders, we live and work in the real world of contrasts, contradictions, inconsistencies and exceptions.

Instead of opting for fairytale descriptions and simplistic explanations, it’s our job to ferret out the facts as best we can and appreciate that there are at least two versions of every story.

Glamorizing that first Thanksgiving by idealizing any of the participants won't get us there.

The most important lesson of the holiday is that whenever imperfect people come together – that’s all of us -- life can get messy. Our family Thanksgivings need not be idyllic to be meaningful. We’re celebrating our ability to value family and friends despite our flawed humanity.

bottom of page