The solitude of leadership

There’s almost nowhere better to enjoy solitude than on a long haul flight. As I’m writing this en route from London to Chicago, it’s the perfect moment to ponder can solitude as a condition of truly effective leadership override the currency of quick decision-making, multi-tasking and that much coveted badge of busy-ness?

The phrase The Solitude of Leadership belongs to William Deresiewicz. He first used it in a lecture to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009. Dr Deresiewicz is an author, scholar, essayist and contributor to The New York Times. A Columbia and Yale alumnus, as student and academic he’s shaking up the status quo thinking around leadership and learning.

His lecture makes for a riveting read. Here’s just one excerpt:

“I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day… for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25 year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Now that’s the third time I’ve used that word, concentrating. Concentrating, focusing. 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. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers too are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. 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 find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it too, to make mistakes and recognise them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”

The best leaders I know are deep thinkers who confidently think for themselves. They may listen to conventional wisdom, but act only on their personally formed conclusions resulting from laboured thinking and deep deliberation.

If’ you would like to read Deresiewicz’s lecture in full the link is: http://theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership

What’s your Point of View?

Geoff Slade

Geoff Slade has worked at the forefront of the Recruitment industry for 50 years. He is the Executive Chairman of Slade Group and was awarded a Centenary Medal for services to the industry.

Geoff Slade
Chairman
Slade Group
Level 7, 15 William Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: +61 3 9235 5100
gslade@sladegroup.com.au
sladegroup.com.au

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