Solitude and Leadership
This speech was delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point last October.
What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others–the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement–people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. When we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.
Leadership is what you are here to learn at West Point–the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.
I just spent 10 years teaching at Yale University, an institution that–like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and West Point–constantly encourages its students to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society.
As I taught, I began to wonder what leadership really consists of. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight A’s make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons and great novelists and great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders.
Things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. My peers and I didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school: classes and standardized tests, extracurriculars in school and extracurriculars outside of school; test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors.
I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do in presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call in admissions lingo the “brag,” the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had 6 or 7 extracurriculars was already in trouble, because the students who got in usually had–in addition to perfect grades and top scores–10 or 12.
What I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins medical school, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as partners at White & Case, or attending physicians at Mass General, or assistant secretaries in the Department of State.
That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders: educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles that the university can brag about; people who make it to the top by climbing 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. To explain why, I want to spend a few minutes talking about the novel Heart of Darkness. Even if you haven’t read the book, you’ve no doubt seen the film that was inspired by it, Apocalypse Now. On screen the novel’s main character, Marlow, is called Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. The novel’s Kurtz becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. And Apocalypse Now is set in Vietnam.
But the novel isn’t about Vietnam; it’s about colonialism in the Belgian Congo three generations before that war. Marlow is a merchant marine, a civilian ship’s captain, who is sent by the company that’s running the country under charter from the Belgian crown to sail deep upriver, up the Congo River, to retrieve a manager who’s ensconced himself in the jungle and gone rogue, just like Colonel Kurtz does in the movie.
The novel is highly regarded for its take on imperialism and colonialism and race relations and the darkness that lies in the human heart. As I taught the novel, though, it became clear to me that it is also about bureaucracy–what I referred to earlier as hierarchy. The Company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy. Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. Marlow proceeds upriver by stages. First he gets to the Outer Station. Kurtz is at the Inner Station. In between is the Central Station, where Marlow spends the most time, and where we get our best look at bureaucracy in action and the kind of people who succeed in it. This is Marlow’s description of the manager of the Central Station, the big boss:
He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy–a smile–not a smile–I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts–nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust–just uneasiness–nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him–why?. . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going–that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.
Note the adjectives: commonplace, ordinary, usual, common. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realized it was a perfect description of the type of individual who tends to prosper in a bureaucratic environment. And I did only because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the head of my academic department–who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what.
Like the manager–and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army and whatever institution you end up giving your talents to after the Army–the head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her.
But, as Marlow asks, why? That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it that the best people so often are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things–the leaders–are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole.
What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering–kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking powerful mentors and riding their coattails until it’s time to stab them in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done.
We have a crisis of leadership in this country, not just in government but in every institution. Consider what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors and TWA and U.S. Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.
Remember what happened during the first four years of the Iraq War? We were stuck. It wasn’t the fault of the enlisted ranks or the noncoms or the junior officers. It was the fault of the senior leadership, military or civilian or both. Not only weren’t we winning, we weren’t even changing direction.
We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and 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 have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise.
What we don’t have are people who can think for themselves; people who can formulate a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things; people with vision.
A team of researchersat Stanford wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered–and this is by no means what they expected–is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: The more people multitask, the worse they are not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.
One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers, and then used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. They were more easily distracted. They were more unorganized, unable to keep information in the right conceptual boxes and retrieve it quickly. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking: switching between tasks.
Multitasking, in short, impairs your ability to think. Thinking isn’t about learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information. It requires concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea of your own.You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
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 make mistakes and recognize 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.
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.
Concentration. 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, television and radio and magazines and even newspapers–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?
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 confront them, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or in the New York Times. They can only be found within–without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.
In Heart of Darkness, it’s the solitude of concentration that saves Marlow amid the madness of the Central Station. When he gets there he finds out that the steamboat he’s supposed to sail upriver has a giant hole in it, and no one is going to help him fix it, including his assistant, who is still trying to kiss his way up the hierarchy and who’s been raving away at him. “I let him run on,” Marlow says of the assistant, “this papier-mâché Mephistopheles and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt”:
It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit–to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work–no man does–but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. Your own reality–for yourself, not for others–what no other man can ever know.
Now that phrase, “finding yourself,” has acquired a bad reputation. It suggests an aimless liberal arts college graduate–an English major, no doubt, someone who went to a place like Amherst or Pomona–who’s too spoiled to get a job and spends his time staring off into space. But here’s Marlow, a mariner, a ship’s captain. A more practical, hardheaded person you could not find. (And I should say that Marlow’s creator, Joseph Conrad, spent 19 years as a merchant marine, 8 of them as a ship’s captain, before he became a writer, so this wasn’t just some artist’s idea of a sailor.) Marlow believes in the need to find yourself just as much as anyone does, and the way to do it, he says, is work, solitary work. Concentration. Climbing on that steamboat and spending a few uninterrupted hours hammering it into shape. Or building a house, or cooking a meal, or even writing a college paper, if you really put yourself into it.
“Your own reality–for yourself, not for others.” Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and the New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now–older people as well as younger people–you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.
Emerson said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
I submit to you that a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of solitude, an attempt to think for himself. Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: This is precisely what makes them valuable.
The great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude–the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine–there would be no America.
So 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. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.
Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, however. I’m talking about friendships marked by intimate conversation. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying, but long, uninterrupted talk with one other person.
Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is talking to another person you can trust, to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things–to acknowledge things to yourself–that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.
This is what we call thinking out loud, discovering what you believe in the course of articulating it. But it takes just as much time and just as much patience as solitude in the strict sense.
I know that finding solitude won’t be easy for you. Even if you threw away your cell phones and unplugged your computers, the rigors of your training here keep you too busy. But you need to try precisely because of what the job you are training for will demand of you.
You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. It was terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?
How will you find the strength to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do when you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?
These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than those most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues–morality, mortality, honor–for yourself, so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe, but what you believe.
William Deresiewicz, an essayist and critic, delivered this lecture at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009. Excerpted from The American Scholar(Spring 2010), a lively quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, science, history, and culture published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society since 1932. www.theamericanscholar.org
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