Solitude and Leadership

A colleague of mine shared with me an invited speech that William Deresiewicz delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.  While I cannot do justice to the number of insights he provided, I did find a number of items that are as pertinent to current leaders as to the aspirational leaders in their first year at West Point.

His overarching theme throughout the speech was importance of solitude for leaders: “And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.”

Solitude is where leaders spend time thinking and talking to themselves.  It is that time where leaders move beyond knowing how to get things done to asking “whether they’re worth doing in the first place. “  We have learned to do specific things so that we’ve become experts in simply keeping “the routine going.”  He suggests that yes, we know how to fulfill goals, but do we know “how to set them?”

He suggests that “we have a crisis of leadership in America,” because what we don’t have are thinkers.  “People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction….a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.”  He recognizes that his audience is about to join, as he calls it, one of the great “bureaucratic bureaucracies in the world.”  I think it would be a bit of an understatement to say that those of us in higher education are in similar bureaucracies. This is true in terms of the policies and procedures we are governed by at the national, regional, state, and institutional levels, and I think we can also suffer from “this is how we’ve always done it.”  While there is strength in maintaining quality, we cannot let that limit our creativity in how we deliver and assess learning.  I see one of my great challenges as a leader is to formulate new directions, new ways of doing things, and new ways of looking at things.  I wish all of us the courage to be leaders who move beyond that which we were trained for, to having interests that challenge us beyond our area of expertise.

Now let’s stop right here.  Keep in mind that he is talking to a first year class at West Point. These are individuals who are being prepared for warfare, where the giving and taking of orders is of prime importance.  Yet he reminds them that successful officers will be those who are required to think independently, creatively, and flexibly.  From my experience, an important attribute of leaders is that they not only think independently, creatively, and flexibly but also encourage this with their team.  And most importantly, leaders must have courage: “the courage to stand up for what you believe.”

In addition to solitude, leaders need focus.  Deresiewicz suggests that in this hyper-connected world (my words), this is a challenge.  We find ourselves multi-tasking to simply keep up with the flow of work.  And if you add other distractors — text messaging, email, Facebook, you name it — we don’t take the time to slow down.  Slowing down is key: we “do our best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.”

Another distractor from my point of view is that when we make a conscious decision to only read blogs, visit news outlets, etc., that support our own point of view, we are “marinating ourselves in the conventional wisdom.” As Deresiewicz points out, “leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.”

If it’s true, and I believe it to be, that “true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions,” then as leaders we must take the time to slow down, develop the focus, and provide the solitude that allows us to think through what our true convictions are and how we will respond when faced with difficult ethical decisions.  It’s too late to think through these things when we are confronted with them: “Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late.”

To best know who we are as leaders, as individuals, we must, as Deresiewicz suggests, take counsel of ourselves in solitude.  Thus Deresiewicz’s thesis: “Solitude is the very essence of leadership.”

And yes, being a leader can be lonely.  “The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.”  Take the time to find solitude and to take the counsel of yourself.

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