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I recently read a transcript of a speech called "Solitude and Leadership" by William Deresiewicz, best-selling author of Excellent Sheet: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and former Professor at Yale. His talk was to cadets in their first year at West Point.

Deresiewicz pointed out that qualities like--intelligence, ambition, excellence--are not the traits that make a great leader. He observed that all of his students at Yale were among the best and brightest learners in the world, but few possessed the potential to be truly remarkable leaders. Deresiewicz says the problem is that too many students selected to attend elite schools are trained from an early age not to be leaders but rather "world-class hoop jumpers." They participate in all the extracurricular activities, they know how to score high on the standardized prep tests, and do what they are told to do in order to gain admittance to the school of their dreams or, in some cases, the university of their parents' dreams. As a result, they become what one of his students described as "excellent sheep"--quite the opposite of excellent leaders.

The 35-minute "Solitude and Leadership" lecture can be found on the American Scholar website at:

I encourage you to schedule a "solitude" appointment with yourself sometime over the next few days to really think about the significance of his message.

In the meantime, I've highlighted 4 ideas that you can review and reflect on now.

  1. "Solitude is what you have the least of here...and yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership."

  2. "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 don't have are leaders. What we don't have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army--a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things...True leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions."

  3. "Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it...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...You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating on questions like...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 really 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 do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within--without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude."

  4. "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. But I'm talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. 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. 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. 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. That 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. And our new electronic world has disrupted it just as violently. Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk with...we have 968 'friends' that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction."

If you agree with some aspect of these 4 points, this is a great weekend to spend more time in solitude.

Look for every opportunity you can to turn off your phone and just think, or have a meaningful one-on-one conversation with a family member or friend.

Plan some time to go for a walk in nature or find a quiet place to just sit and listen to that still small voice inside of you that only speaks when you slow down to listen.

During your silent time, it's helpful to have a pen and notebook to write down some questions to ask your God or Higher Power and capture the answers you receive.

Here are 5 questions to get you started:

  1. What is the purpose for the rest of your life?

  2. How can you do a better job of bringing out the best in the people you have the privilege of leading in your workplace, family and community?

  3. How can you help your organization add more value to the people you choose to serve?

  4. What should you start doing or stop doing to improve the well-being of your team and family?

  5. What virtues do you want to model for your co-workers and family?

To make the right decisions as a leader and create positive change, you need to get in touch with your inner guide on a daily basis. The best way to accomplish that objective is to experience solitude, because it's only when you're silent that you can hear your truth.


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