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The 6 Guilty Pleasures of Executive Travel

| Martin Boroson

At the beginning of COVID, several of my coaching clients began reporting a strange problem: they were missing executive travel—in particular, flying business class.

These clients—senior executives and management consultants—confessed this to me only sheepishly, as they knew it was a first-world problem, particularly in the time of COVID. 

Before the pandemic, these business travelers flew several times a week, often internationally, so they certainly knew the downsides of travel—the exhaustion, the jet lag, missing their children’s bedtime, yet again. Indeed, in the early days of lockdown, they loved being grounded—catching up on sleep, getting more exercise, and being in just one timezone. 

Still, they yearned for those business class trips and this perplexed them, for what they were missing was not what they expected. They didn’t miss counting up their air miles or seeing their elite status soar higher. They didn’t miss the perfectly polished customer service, the frisson of waltzing past those long queues, the complimentary Veuve Clicquot on boarding. 

They missed the downtime. 

High-achieving leaders are generally not that good at making time for downtime. Many do not even empower their assistants—who are otherwise fierce guardians of their calendar—to create, defend, or respect downtime. This means that flying business class may be their primary—in some cases, only—downtime. 

I decided to tease out what exactly about this in-the-air downtime my clients were missing. I was curious to discern the experiences, or types of time, they needed but were not finding on the ground. And through our conversations, I distinguished these six “guilty” pleasures of their inflight downtime:

1. The joy of being uncontactable

In “airplane mode,” your phone is off, and even if the flight has Wi-Fi and you purchase it, you can’t rely on it. This means that leaders in flight are—or can at least pretend to be—uncontactable. 

In a world where everyone is always on, all the time, the ability to “switch off” has become almost obsolete. This is particularly true for leaders who feel—rightly or wrongly—that they always have to be available, ready at all times to solve problems and “put out fires.”  They are where the buck stops. But this can become excessive, unnecessary, even addictive. 

Flying gives them a break from that … and with a good excuse. Said one of my clients, “When I’m flying, no one can get at me.”

2. The joy of being unscheduled

Many leaders are scheduled back-to-back, every day. But being over-scheduled sucks the life out of you. When you have a full, predetermined schedule, there is no room for spontaneity, creative thinking, or being agile. There is no room for finding your flow. 

But when you are uncontactable and when nobody—including you—knows exactly where you are or what time it is, it’s impossible to be scheduled. So, that scheduled flight may be the only time when a leader is unscheduled.

3. The joy of relaxing

Many high-achievers don’t know how to relax. But by “relax,” I don’t mean playing a sport (to win), climbing a mountain (to conquer), or taking up a hobby (to master). I mean dropping everything. I mean doing nothing. I mean doing nothing well. 

Up in the air, there simply isn’t much you can do. And so, sooner or later, no matter how much of an achiever you are, you stop.

4. The joy of “me” time

Many leaders spend a lot of their time following:  responding to the needs, demands, and questions of others. On top of that, they carry heavy responsibility—responsibility for the satisfaction of their customers, the needs of their shareholders, the safety of their products, the livelihood of their employees.  

But up in the air, if there is a problem—even a crisis—on the ground, someone else has to deal with it. Up in the air, you can’t take your client out for drinks, you can’t take your husband on a date night, you can’t take your children to Playland. Indeed, you can’t take care of anyone but yourself. 

Executive travel is the  time when many leaders get to say, “It’s just me here.” They can settle in, have a drink, put their feet up, and choose the movie that they want to watch. Even better, they get some time to reflect on who they really are and what they really want.

5. The joy of nesting

The seat in business class, in some cases a pod or suite, is designed to make you feel cozy and contained but not claustrophobic. You’re in your own safe, small, world. It’s like being swaddled.

I suspect that, at a deep level, this triggers associations to childhood. It invokes a somewhat unconscious desire to be little again—to feel cosseted or cocooned—to experience that state where no one is bothering us and all our needs are met. 

For leaders who carry so much responsibility and spend their days making decisions that impact thousands of lives, experiencing this childlike state is rare. Indeed, many high flyers I know have never experienced it. As children, they were the hard drivers or were driven hard. Or they grew up in a traumatic family that forced them to grow up prematurely—where they were the only responsible one, the one person in the family who took care of everyone else.

In that expensive crib of business class, however, you have no concerns. You feel safe and cared for. You don’t have to steer the ship. You don’t have to solve anyone’s problems. The world is not on your shoulders. How wonderful that is. You can get lost in your dream world. You can hide under the covers. You can climb into your treehouse. And float down the Mississippi on a raft.

6. The joy of seeing the big picture

In a plane, you are literally lifted out of ordinary life, and looking out from the airplane window to see the world below is breathtaking. You get a wow-moment, a kind of spiritual experience, in which your perspective on life is suddenly expanded. Not unlike meditation, this gives you pause, and these moments of pause can be profoundly refreshing.

Do we really need uptime for downtime?

Downtime is vital, I believe, for health and wellness. But it is also essential for sane leadership, for it gives leaders time to recover, process, and reflect. It is also essential for enlightened leadership, for downtime gives leaders time to imagine.

The tragedy is that the world doesn’t consider downtime essential to leadership and that the benefits I have enumerated above are “guilty” pleasures.  Perhaps this is why these require time up in the air. But downtime should not require so much uptime.

The pandemic gave us an opportunity to reduce the amount of business flying, with clear benefits to family life, health, and of course, the climate.

But perhaps the most intriguing change is that some leaders are finally appreciating the value of downtime. They are realizing that even crazy-busy masters of the universe need downtime. They are realizing that downtime doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. And that you can find that downtime right here on the ground.

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