altLead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin (Bloomsbury 2017)

For me, the most impressive chapter of Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism was that on solitude, in which Newport recommends Lead Yourself First. It is a good book, filled with stories of how famous leaders of the past and present (both introverted and highly extroverted) found times of solitude essential to their success. If you've read the former, it is probably not necessary to read this one, Newport having done a good job of condensing the meat in his chapter. But the examples here, which include Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jane Goodall, T. E. Lawrence, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Aung San Suu Kyi, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, and many lesser-known leaders, are worth reading in themselves. And for someone in a leadership position it might be even more inspiring.

I did find this to be a somewhat depressing book, despite my appreciation of its content. I find it impossible to read so much about what other people have accomplished and how they work without looking at my own life and thinking, how is it I never learned how to do this?

Somewhere in elementary school, one of my teachers expressed to my parents that he wished I had more interest in being a leader. Teachers are always looking for "leadership qualities." It never occurred to me to want to be a leader ... or a follower, either. So maybe that's where I missed out. Or maybe this is the equivalent of social media envy—the Barbie doll problem. Or maybe the answer lies in the first quotation.

Leading from good to great requires discipline—disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action. (from the forward by Jim Collins, p. xiv)

This book illustrates how leaders can—indeed must—be disciplined people who create the quiet space for disciplined thought and summon the strength for disciplined action. It is a message needed now more than ever, else we run the risk of waking up at the end of the year having accomplished little of significance, each year slipping by in a flurry of activity pointing nowhere. (p. xvii, emphasis mine)

I warned you it could be depressing.

To develop ... clarity and conviction of purpose, and the moral courage to sustain it through adversity, requires something that one might not associate with leadership. That something is solitude. (p. xviii)

Genuine leadership means taking the harder path. There are plenty of easier ones: the worn path of convention, smooth and obstacle-free; the fenced path of bureaucracy, where all the hard thinking is done for you, so long as you go wherever it leads; and the parade route of adulation, for those who elevate their followers' approval above all. To depart from any of these paths takes a considered act of will. Not because they are plainly right—more often the opposite is true—but because of the consequences that are sure to follow. The leader who defies convention must bear the disapproval of establishment types, who will try to coerce him morally, and failing that might box his ears. The leader who defies bureaucracy is usually in for harder treatment, as its machinery, given the chance, will run over him with the indifference of a tank. And the leader who makes unpopular decisions must be willing to be unpopular herself, at least for a while. (p. xix)

One of the book's strengths, I believe, is its recognition of what I will call active and passive solitude, and the importance of each. Passive solitude, a clearing of the thoughts commonly (though far from exclusively) associated with meditation, allows people to draw upon the intuition that is so often drowned out by the noise and action of everyday life. ("Be still, and know that I am God.") In active solitude one focusses intently on a particular problem—think Jacob wrestling with the angel. ("I will not let you go unless you bless me.")

The foundation of both analytical and intuitive clarity is an uncluttered mind. (p. 4)

For Eisenhower, the most rigorous way to think about a subject was to write about it. (p. 28)

[Quoting Eisenhower] My days are always full. Even when I think I have a couple of hours to myself, something always happens to upset my plans. But it's right that we should be busy—as long as we can retain time to think. (p. 29)

[Quoting Dena Braeger] We're getting more of everything, but less of what is authentically ourselves. If we spent more time alone, creating something that might not look as amazing [as something from Pinterest] but is more authentic, we'd value ourselves more. (p. 58)

[Quoting Chip Edens] Leaders experience fear in times of turbulence or threat. You become obsessed about worst-case scenarios, fall into despair. That's the easiest way to resolve the conflict. That's when people snap—they quit the job, the marriage is ended, there's no hope. You need to step away from that and give yourself space to process it. (p. 66, emphasis mine)

[Quoting Chip Edens] Differences are a product of ideas. Division is a product of behavior. A community means we live together with differences, but we can't be divided. (p. 66)

[Quoting Dena Braeger] People are so quick to bow to the idea of "staying connected." They aren't conscious of the priorities they're setting with regard to their time. Time is an unrenewable resource. You can't get it back. All these things we've done to exchange information, to access information at our fingertips, have actually taken away our time for restoring the soul. (pp. 133-134)

Solitude has been instrumental to the effectiveness of leaders throughout history, but now they (along with everyone else) are losing it with hardly any awareness of the fact. Before the Information Age—which one could also call the Input Age—leaders naturally found solitude anytime they were physically alone, or when walking from one place to another, or while standing in line. Like at great wave that saturates everything in its path, however, handheld devices deliver immeasurable quantities of information and entertainment that now have virtually everyone instead staring down at their phones. Society did not make a considered choice to surrender the bulk of its time for reflection in favor of time spent reading tweets or texts. (p. 181)

A leader must strike a balance between solitude and interaction with others, but leaders (along with everyone else) face considerable social pressure to skew the balance toward interaction. The term "loner" is usually a pejorative, often directed at people who spend only a fraction of their time alone. And in many offices the culture is to gather in herds—not only in meetings but at cake parties, lunch, and various events outside work. ... This same culture also finds physical manifestation, in open-office plans and large rooms full of cubicles. (p. 182)

If you plan to use solitude to think about a specific issue, you should identify that issue in advance and briefly review any materials you think especially relevant. That will get your mind processing the issue beforehand, which often allows insights—sometimes analytical, sometimes intuitive—to come more quickly when you do think about it. (pp. 184-185)

Extroverts gain energy from interaction with others, while introverts lose it. And introverts gain energy from solitude, while extroverts lose it. ... But these energy transfers have little to do with how extroverts and introverts actually perform in these settings. Introverts can excel in social settings; extroverts can excel at thinking alone. The limitation is simply that members of each group can spend only so much time out of their element before they need to recharge. (p. 185)

In some quarters there is a "fear of missing out": a fear that, if one unplugs from e-mail or news services or social media even for a few hours, they'll be less current (a few hours less, to be exact) than their peers. And indeed that is true. But tracking all these inputs is surrender to the Lilliputians. One simply cannot engage in anything more than superficial thought when cycling back and forth between these tweets and work. And most of the inputs are piecemeal, and thus worthless anyway. As with our obsession with smartphones, one needs to make a choice about whether to engage in this kind of practice. And no one serious about his responsibilities will choose to engage in it. (p. 186)

Here's a 15-minute TED talk by Raymond Kethledge that will give you another taste of these ideas.

I would just add two comments.

(1) The quote he attributes to Viktor Frankl at about 10:10 is probably not by him (see this discussion), not that that devalues the point.

(2) At about 11:00 he states, "Moral courage is what we need when we're subject to moral criticism. Moral criticism is when someone says, 'You're not simply mistaken because of what you believe or what you choose to do, but ... you're a bad person because of those things.'" That, ladies and gentlemen, sums up the problem with discourse today.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 28, 2020 at 5:24 pm | Edit
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Do we really want a world in which everyone wants to be a leader?



Posted by Kathy Lewis on Wednesday, October 28, 2020 at 7:18 pm

I think you put the wrong book cover in your post.

Thanks for the quotes. This is quite a heavy accusation: "no one serious about his responsibilities will choose to engage in it [constant checking of email, news, and social media]."

The fear of missing out fades as productivity in things that matter rises. The Braeger quote about an authentic creation vs. one we copied from Pintrets is interesting. Copying is a great way to learn, but if all we do is copy great works then that can lead to feeling like a fake (like the interpretive musician who cannot improvise).



Posted by Janet on Wednesday, November 04, 2020 at 8:44 am

Thanks for catching the cover mistake. How many times have I looked at this post and not seen it???

You made four comments today and two were marked "unmoderated" and two outright "spam." I fixed both, but that shouldn't have happened at all. You didn't post from a different computer, did you? Or make some other major change to your system?



Posted by SursumCorda on Wednesday, November 04, 2020 at 9:14 am

Don't think so. I did them all in the same session.



Posted by Janet on Thursday, November 05, 2020 at 9:52 am
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