I’ve long relished intentional periods of solitude to reflect and renew. I’ll often take advantage of the six mile stretch of beach between Morro Bay’s [hopefully] extinct volcano a couple blocks from my house and the next seaside village of Cayucos. Aside from a handful of surfers there is almost no one on the beach, so it’s a wonderful walk up to grab some of the world’s best albacore tacos, then a walk back to work them off. I reflect on what is going on in my life, how it differs from the ideal, and what I can do to improve.
Solitude is often a core characteristic of leadership. We hear the phrase “it’s lonely at the top” and perhaps perceive that as a negative, but it’s really a positive. Leveraged correctly, solitude is integral to effective leadership. In 2009, essayist William Deresiewicz delivered a lecture at West Point that dived into the confluence of solitude and leadership. Over the last decade I’ve shared the text of this lecture with several new leaders who have asked for advice.
What is… and isn’t… leadership?
Deresiewicz begins by explaining what leadership is… and isn’t… beginning with describing his experience on Yale’s admission committee.
The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars.
So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life.
That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.
But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea.
He goes on to describe how being able to effectively operate within a bureaucracy is not leadership, and how this was particularly important for the plebe class he was talking to as they would be working within the world’s largest bureaucracy – the U.S. military.
That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you.
I tell you this to forewarn you, because I promise you that you will meet these people and you will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader.
So what does he believe is an important characteristic of leadership, one that is missing from the “world-class hoop jumpers”?
What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
Multi-tasking impedes thinking
Before diving into how to think, he mentions a personal hot button of mine, multi-tasking, as a way not to think.
The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.
Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.
Enabling thinking with solitude
Ok, so we need solid time to develop our own ideas. That’s where the power of solitude (finally, you’re probably saying…!) comes into play.
You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input.
So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation.
Ok, that doesn’t sounds like solitude. Except he means having an intimate conversation… with yourself. The person you (hopefully) trust and can be honest with the most.
You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe. How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude?
Embrace the loneliness, the solitude, of leadership. Leverage it to reflect on your values, your life and organization, and to formulate your own unique ideas.