BOOK REVIEW: Why leaders need to be alone


Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin

WHAT can you teach senior leaders that they haven’t learned in Business School, read about in the popular literature, or heard on a retreat? Not much, unfortunately. This book, Lead Yourself First, has an essential lesson for people in the C-suite, or aspiring to be there: the importance of solitude.

Leadership solitude is productive solitude, to be used purposely and with an end in mind. When solitude is successful, the result is an insight or a broader view of things, with clear-eyed, inspired conviction. This is the foundation of leadership, the authors assert. The authors make their case through leaders in all walks of life from Dwight Eisenhower and James Mattis, to Jane Goodall and Aung San Suu Kyi.

What we need from leaders is clarity and conviction of purpose; we need to feel their moral courage. Leaders need clarity, conviction and courage to sustain themselves through the inevitable adversity from colleagues, staff, shareholders, the competition, and more.

We live in an age starved for solitude - with emails, texts, tweets, the internet with its information overload, all swarming about the leader (and almost everyone else). The essence of solitude is mental isolation, the very opposite of accessibility. “Responding to these inputs generates as much thought, and as much inspiration, as swatting so many flies.”

The leader needs to have lot more “screened-off areas” than there are now. Solitude is not necessarily physical separation from others, or togetherness with nature, it can be found as readily while sitting alone in a restaurant.

It is, simply, “a subjective state of mind, in which the mind, isolated from input from other minds, works through a problem on its own”, the authors explain.

Leaders should always feel, and be held responsible for, their decisions because these always have consequences, good and bad. Leaders who bear the consequences must do so to a larger vision, often not fully understood or understandable by others.

This is where solitude plays its part and can produce the clarity to know when the easy path is the wrong one. Clarity is often a difficult thing because the concerns of the present seem to overwhelm the potentially greater concerns that lie in the future.

Solitude offers ways for leaders to obtain greater clarity in many arenas, but they all stem from silencing the din in your mind. With a quiet mind, you then hear the “delicate voice of intuition”, which may have already made connections that your conscious mind has not. This is because intuition forms beneath the surface of conscious thought. It is not focused on what you are experiencing now, but instead draws on all your experiences, past and present.

Solitude doesn’t take the place of analytical clarity. This hard-won kind of clarity is most often the result of strenuous effort and rigorous syllogistic thought. The more difficult leadership decisions, however - which include decisions about people - are often beyond analytical clarity.

It is after this analytical work that you need solitude to allow your intuition to emerge, your quiet inner voice. If the analysis or recommendation doesn’t feel right, you are probably better advised by your intuition.

Solitude is not only required for clarifying which of the available options will be most effective, it is also essential to creativity and the development of a possibility that you were not aware of.

A creative work or idea is often the rejection of established norms of your context, but as often it is new or based on horizontal connections between things that never seemed related. A creative decision is often the convergence of information, intuition, and your values. To arrive at this decision requires solitude.

The space between stimulus and response

The psychologist Viktor Frankl explained that between every stimulus and response, there is a space. Silence and solitude create this space, and can elongate it. The space gives you time to develop a creative response to what you’re feeling and thinking. Without this solitude there is only reaction.  

Added to the value of solitude to decision-making is its value on an emotional level. Many of the people described in the book used silence and solitude to stay grounded.

Leaders must inevitably take on forces larger than themselves, and it is only through clarity and conviction that they can be a match for these forces. Leaders who come to that process with equanimity put no emotional distortion of their own on the scale. And as every leader knows, this equanimity is often more fragile than one lets on.

It is common for leaders with great responsibility to be racked with anxiety. However, no one will choose to follow someone who manifests this anxiety. “The leader needs to have presence, to show up to the moment grounded in one’s self, as centred as one can be, ready to hear, to listen, to discern”, the authors point out.

James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, put it well: “An effective leader is the person who can maintain their balance and reflect, when a lot of people around them are reacting.” He sees the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the information age as a lack of reflection.

Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting and not only restores emotional balance, but helps to maintain it. I am sure your personal experience, like mine, has led you to distinguish between effective leaders and inferior ones largely informed by their ability to restore their emotional balance.

“Our culture has become more strident than sublime, with a coarseness that has worn away the delicate alloy of beauty and decency that used to be called grace,” the authors explain elegantly.

To lead others, you must lead yourself, which the title of the book asserts. Practising solitude is a critical, personal practice that cannot be ignored.

Readability:     Light --+-- Serious
Insights:          High -+--- Low
Practical:          High +---- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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