How Do Leaders Travel Well?

How can you make travel an intentional practice?

This week I returned from Korea, back to my coaching clients in the US and Japan. Being away was fantastic, tiring and insightful. The long flights and being in Asia reminded me of my time at Gengo, and of how many things have changed and stayed the same since I was there a decade ago.

Look out the window sometimes?

How do you make travel an intentional practice?

For many leaders, business travel is both essential to their company’s growth and disruptive to their personal performance and team communication. There are ways to make it easier.

During 2012-2015 I traveled between Tokyo and the Bay Area every month, with additional trips to Asia and North America in-between. It was a heavy schedule, but the whole thing became far easier when I learned how to do it well. If you end up needing to travel regularly for business, I recommend you intentionally develop routines and rituals. Find the hotel, airline, car situation, food choices and other factors that help you focus and stay well. Thinking about these things carefully can maintain your sanity.

Remember - your mental health has a double impact as a leader, on the quality of your own decision-making, and on the happiness and mindfulness of those around you.

Try asking yourself questions:

What are the things that really matter? What are the foods that revive and reinvigorate you? What are your limits when it comes to networking, entertaining, drinking and eating? What are the things that stress you out? What is the minimum you need to pack (it’s less than you think)? What is worth paying for, and what is not? What stuff is consistent, and can be delegated. What is too complicated and personal to delegate?

How well do you access natural, direct sunlight? How can you use it intentionally to manage your jet lag? The data is powerful. Side note: it’s kind of shocking how many people close their window blinds on daytime flights, and how many people never even look out of the window on a plane. Look at the scenery, and give yourself time to think. You are privileged to see from altitude.

How intentionally do you manage how you eat, or fast? Fasting is one of the most effective ways to reset your body clock. It’s just hard, because there’s not much to do on flights without distracting yourself with food. Bonus: the more you develop even a little practice with hunger, the less you will succumb to hangriness-by-default, and feeling entitled to being upset if you do not have a full stomach at every moment in the day.

How do you find quiet moments in busy cities? Learning how to switch off by finding a quiet café, or perhaps even moments when you can listen to a record without any agenda, can be surprisingly good for recharging.

How might you find moments to be completely present amidst the bustle of travel?

What do you learn on your travels?

Your responsibility and privilege as a leader is to Always Be Learning. Whether that is while strolling around the streets of a foreign city or watching something interesting in your hotel at 5am with jet lag.

A great source for Be Like Animal, Be Like Plant-type insights is the excellent nature documentary Green Planet, narrated by David Attenborough, and currently available on Max. In the first episode, we encounter a subterranean fungus that provides food for leaf-cutter ants which bring it a constant supply of leaves from the jungle above. The fungus grows steadily, while the ants cut more and more leaf pieces from a large plant - a perfect symbiosis. However, as the ants take more from one specific plant, the plant’s defenses kick in and it produces a chemical which harms the fungus - eventually encouraging the ants to find a different plant to take from.

The leaf-cutter ants and fungi from Green Planet

If you view this as a competitive situation, then the plant is attacking the fungi. If, instead, you view it as a feedback loop within a system, the plant is communicating with the fungi and the ants, and ensuring they draw from a variety of nutrient sources in the jungle rather than decimating an individual. This approach creates balance across the ecosystem, and allows fungus, ants and plants to thrive. It all depends on whether you think the fungus is being hurt by the plant, or simply taking it as feedback.

Visiting Livfarm, a vertical farm and café in Seoul

In the same way, the failure and closure of multiple vertical farms over the past two years can be viewed as a harm to the ecosystem, or as information in a feedback loop. By using the information and learning from what has and hasn’t worked, we can revive a healthy ecosystem.

In Seoul I visited Livfarm, one example of an integrated farm + café model, which seems to be thriving in busy, wealthy areas of this massive city. Their locations have a small vertical farm occupying around 1/6th of the space, with foodservice in the remaining area. The success of the Livfarm model might be true, and also it might be true that the same business model might not work in a smaller, lower-income city. Let’s hope the industry can continue to take feedback not as harm but as information, learning what models work best, and where, and why.

How do you return to Earth?

“Integration” is the therapeutic term used for helping folks who have had a complex inner journey on psychedelics how to come to terms with it and weave it into their everyday understanding of life. I’ve always felt like we need a mini version of this practice to integrate the feelings and exhaustion of long-haul travel back into our regular lives at home.

There’s something a little magical about extreme jet-lag. Waking up at 4am and feeling entirely alert can allow you to dive into a book with unusual energy, meditate unusually-long hours, exercise in a gym with no one around, or just tackle massive piles of laundry. I actually kind of love this time. There are many more hours of silence in the day, and moments to re-evaluate and put life into perspective.

I’ve been reading The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile, a book that encourages us to thoughtfully create practices for our everyday lives — rather than mindlessly just doing the default. It has helped me think about how to examine the act of returning from travel, and how ‘disadvantages’ like jet lag can actually create opportunities for special and rare moments.

Questions you might ask yourself:
How do you like to integrate back into the world?
How might you make it enjoyable and rewarding?
What might new perspective allow you to discard from your life before?
What feels more precious now?

What can you learn by being gone?

Indoor farmers know that plants grow fast when conditions are right, without any intervention from the farmer. You return after a long weekend and your shiso and basil look like they have doubled in size.

One of the surprising, humbling things about returning to any office after weeks away is that some tricky problems or team challenges often have just… solved themselves without you being there. It’s a reminder that often the best way is not to force something, it’s to create the conditions that allow good things to happen.

As leaders, it can be hard to accept this reality when you first experience it. You might feel relieved that things are going well, but worry that this means your individual contribution isn’t as valuable as you thought. But this is part of the natural transition from being an individual contributor to being a leader. It’s not really about your individual contribution any more.

Allowing that good, and even unexpectedly-good things can happen while you are away can help relieve any anxiety about leaving. It can help you trust a little more that you do not need to control every aspect of your business, all of the time. This might sound like an obvious instruction but it is very difficult for many founders and CEOs to accept without quite deliberate practice.

Asking yourself ‘what good things might happen?’ can be more responsible and helpful to your team than fretting about what calamities might happen, and can give your nervous system a real chance to reset, so that your contribution on your return can be positive, helpful and reinvigorating to the team.

May you travel well.

I coach CEOs, founders and executives on how to reach their full potential, become great leaders, and scale strong, impactful companies. It works.

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