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
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