Thursday, April 01, 2010

Solitude and Leadership - A Unique Perspective by Bill Deresiewicz

Last fall at West Point, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz delivered to the Plebe class a remarkable lecture that has now been printed in the current edition of The American Scholar. In this lecture and article, Deresiewicz makes a compelling argument for solitude to be an integral part of the growth and development of a leader's tool kit.

As the author defines solitude, it includes such activities as reading and active reflection on what one has read. The feedback that I receive from young officers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq is that finding time for this kind of deep thinking is an important part of managing the challenges of leadership in a difficult and ever-changing and ever-challenging environment.

I thank The American Scholar and Professor Deresiewicz for their permission to reproduce his thoughts in this space.

Solitude and Leadership

If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts

William Deresiewicz

The lecture below was delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year.

"My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is what you are here to learn—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why."

After continuing his argument in this direction for the first half of his lecture, Deresiewicz shifts gears and offers his explication of the expediency of carving out time for solitude. Here is part of that exposition:

"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. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that 'the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.'

Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities."

The author has done a great service to these future military leaders by offering them a perspective that they will not find in a Field Manual. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety.

To read the entire article, click on the link below:

The American Scholar Article



Daniel said...

Very interesting. Two weeks ago in Nashville I heard multi-grammy award winner, Kathy Matea, share similar insight for the success of her career & soul's happiness. She said time alone walking, thinking, praying, processing, always allowed for her "inner voice" (which we all have, she noted) to surface amongst the rush & noise life.

In an age of information overload, carving out time to process it all & allow our inner voice to speak is crucial to our well being, & consequently our success.

Danielson, a White Rhino disciple ;)

Scott said...

After reading this essay/speech, I sent it to my son Sean in Afhghanistan. Here are a few of his reactions.

Awesome read!

I wanted to point out my reactions to a few parts:

"All the more so now. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last few years understands that the changing nature of warfare means that officers, including junior officers, are required more than ever to be able to think independently, creatively, flexibly. To deploy a whole range of skills in a fluid and complex situation. Lieutenant colonels who are essentially functioning as provincial governors in Iraq, or captains who find themselves in charge of a remote town somewhere in Afghanistan. People who know how to do more than follow orders and execute routines."

How about a LT (or pair of LTs) in charge of a DISTRICT in Afghanistan filled with over 40 small villages, spread over 400 square kilometers of ground to cover. You either get on board and get creative or you check the block and accomplish nothing. It is truly ON US right now. Yes, we could get an angry phone call or e-mail about not going out more often, but what really happens is on us.

"Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?"

I don't know if it is this mountain air, the freedom, the workout routine or something else. But I can answer these with the strongest conviction since moving out here. YES. YES. Living and leading in the fashion I am right now. And most importantly to the last question....a resounding YES! (Even though MTV's spring break is playing in the background right now.....ahhh....that would be fun- definitely a blast - just like Vegas when I get back...for a couple days. But where's the challenge? Seems as if they are just sheep loving to roll around lead by trends.)

"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."

That sums up what I tried to communicate to the cadets at West Point in my talk. Most of the time in the "About Myself" slides, presentors list thier accomplishments, awards, units, schools, badges. What the F* ever...who paratroopers certainly don't. Like I told the cadets in "About Me": I am comfortable in my own boots in front of my paratroopers. I love my NCO's and Paratroopers. It is that simple. If new PLs and leaders fall into these will all be OK.

Love you guys,


1LT Sean Snook is a partrooper in the 82d Airborne Division currently operating out of a small Forward Opertating Base in Mizan, Afghanistan. More importantly, he is also a White Rhino disciple as well.