— August 3, 2018
By the time I reached age forty, I had never really traveled too far outside of the United States. As a kid living in South Texas my parents used to take me across the border into Mexico to do shopping, and once on vacation, we crossed the border at Detroit to spend the night in Windsor, Ontario. After those few brief childhood trips, I didn’t leave the country for decades. I always had the desire to explore, but I always found an excuse not to make the leap. At age forty, with big changes happening in my life, I realized that not exploring the world was holding me back not only from seeing interesting places but also from being a successful leader. I decided to take the jump into travel and have never looked back – for the past twelve years my slogan has been, “Have passport, will travel!” My desire to travel has given me many things personally and professionally, including the opportunity to talk to international audiences whom I never otherwise would have been hired to speak to.
In the past twelve years, I have been to four continents and somewhere north of twenty-five countries. I am a member of an online travel club, and many members have been to twice as many countries as I have been to, and some have even been to more than 100. But by traveling the world, even in a limited way, I have become a better leader.
You can enhance your leadership acumen by deciding to travel also. The great news is that it is far more affordable than people think. When I ask people why they have not left the United States, the number one answer I get is Money. But last winter I went to Beijing, China. My ticket to Beijing from Las Vegas was less than $ 500 and my hotel for four nights was less than $ 100 a night. I ate some nice meals, but also at McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, and probably spent less on food than I would have spent eating at the restaurants in my hometown of Las Vegas.
Did you notice I said four days? It is nice to spend a couple of weeks in a foreign land, and I have done that, but even a couple of days tacked onto a weekend can make for an enlightening trip. The number two reason people say they don’t travel abroad is that they just don’t have time. And that is for the most part self-deception too.
What can you learn that will make you a better leader by traveling? I find that the greatest value in traveling is in reinforcing, confirming, and intensifying the leadership lessons I hear from others all the time here:
The world is a connected place.
The world seems giant until you traverse it in a couple of days. I flew from Dallas to London, and then on to Hong Kong and Cebu and back in less than seven days. I covered ¾ of the world. What this taught me directly related to leadership is that there is no opportunity that is too far or too slow. Suppliers and customers can come from around the globe, and it doesn’t take much to connect the dots, or in this case, the cities and the people of the world. Travelling opened my eyes to how many opportunities there are to collaborate with colleagues, businesses, and institutions from around the world – after I started traveling, I found numerous opportunities for collaboration through training, speaking, and product development with my international counterparts.
Cultures may be different, but people are the same.
I was with a new friend in Eastern Europe who had never met an American before. He asked me, “Are Americans like us in any way?” I thought about it for a while and despite many cultural, political, social, and economic differences… I said yes. In most cases we want the same things: Freedom and love. Freedom to be our best and use our talents, and love of family and friends, and even colleagues and co-workers. Directly related to leadership, I took from travel experiences the desire to unleash the freedom of each of my employees and partners to be innovative, think creatively, and take the lead with autonomy. This has made me a better leader.
Patience really is a virtue, and it pays to be virtuous.
I have learned how to be patient through world travel. Passport control in Manila is hot and sweaty and inefficient. The train between Prague, Czech Republic, and Wroclaw, Poland is incredibly slow and inefficient. In Buenos Aries, Argentina the Taxis would not pick me up, and in Singapore, an entry delay kept me in a holding area for hours. But at the end of each of these frustrating experiences, everything worked out ok. Leaders are often responsible for the pace of any business and control the schedule in their work. By giving yourself over to the mercies of everything ranging from passport control to departure times, you learn something: in time, everything will work out. For leaders who are used to running the show, travel will give you an opportunity to see how it feels to be on the other side.
You can do things alone.
In my travels, I have almost always traveled alone. I did take my children on a few trips (so they that they could learn about world travel without having to wait until they were forty), but on 80% of my trips, for both business and leisure, I have been alone. It was up to me to solve every problem, and sometimes using a translator app on the phone, or having to navigate taxis who did not understand English names of the hotels I booked. I meet a lot of leaders who tell me in our coaching they are lonely, but most leaders do not spend much time alone. For most leaders having someone else solve a problem is just a phone call or email away. Leaders can learn a lot by traveling the world by themselves.
We have a global responsibility.
When we meet people in their home country and see their way of life, both in wealthy nations and nations that are struggling, we gain an appreciation for doing work that makes the world a better place. By building relationships with people whose lives are far different than ours, we discover an interconnectedness of humanity. This has made me a better leader with those I supervise and coach, and a more effective communicator in my keynote presentation.
Many years ago – long before I traveled – I met a salesman who told me the most valuable thing I could learn was how to say “Hello,” “Please,” and “Thank-you,” in as many languages as possible. I don’t know why that resonated with me, but long before I ever traveled I had mastered this in about 20 different languages. I think I am up to about 30 now (and also know how to ask for the bathroom). More importantly than just knowing the words, I now have a stronger connection to those interesting people I meet on my travels. And this has made me a better leader.
I would love to read in the comments below what you have learned about leadership through your world travel, and I would love to know where you are going next!