Essayist and Critic William Deresiewicz delivered a lecture to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009 concerning Solitude and Leadership. What follows is my condensed version of his key ideas:
… Solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.
… (Generally when we) talk about training leaders (we mean) educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles,… 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.
… Excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, … Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be… Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.
We have a crisis of leadership in America because… for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.
What we don’t have, in other words, 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.
(Leaders) 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… People who know how to do more than follow orders and execute routines.
I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all. What makes a thinker—and a leader—is (the ability to) think things through (and have) the confidence, the courage, to argue for ideas even when they aren’t popular. . (They have) moral courage, the courage to stand up for what they believe.
… True leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn 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.
It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input (instead of dealing with) the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way.
It’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers… can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.
“Finding yourself,” has acquired a bad reputation… (but you) need to find yourself just as much as anyone does, and the way to do it is work, solitary work. Concentration. Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Leadership means finding a new direction…
Solitude is the very essence of leadership. 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.
I wholeheartedly recommend you read the full text of the lecture here. Deresiewicz argues that developing a strong sense of individual values, of thinking for ones self, is crucial to effective leadership even within the confines of a highly regimented system. He uses Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the novel on which the movie Apocalypse Now is based) he points out how empty hierarchical systems can be when they are administered rather than led.
When we are at our best we are encouraging our Scouts to be confident, visionary leaders who think things through and have the moral courage to stand up for what they believe. They are with us for a few short but crucially formative years when we have the opportunity to help them set a course for their futures. This awesome responsibility demands that we, be thinking, compassionate, visionary leaders ourselves.