What We Need

More ink is spilled on the subject of leadership than almost on any other topic in our culture.  That’s probably a sign of how little we know about it — and how desperate we are to understand the knowledge and skills we lack.

Last year, William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, gave a talk at West Point on the subject that put together some unconventional and paradoxical-seeming thoughts on the subject.  He started by stressing the importance of solitude, what he called “the very essence of leadership.”

We are all familiar with the idea that it is lonely at the top.  As Harry Truman put it, that’s where “the buck stops.”  Deresiewicz agrees:  “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.”  What he concludes is that leaders don’t need advice, so much as the ability 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.”  (See “Solitude and Leadership,” in The American Scholar)

This is a switch from our typical emphasis on inspiration and charisma, the fostering of outsized personalities or larger than life poses of confidence.  Leaders do not lead through compulsion or persuasion, but by having better thoughts

Deresiewicz goes on:  “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.”  He adds:   “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.”

In short, to think clearly and effectively, a leader needs others he or she can trust to engage them in refecting deeply and truly.  It’s not a set of attitudes or, even, behaviors.  It’s a way of connecting with reality.