On Leadership and Solitude: Its Connection and Absence in Society
In a speech to cadets at the US Military Academy, William Deresiewicz addresses issues of privacy vs. solitude, leadership vs. achievement, and conformity vs. vision. Deresiewicz argues cogently that universities, especially top universities, perform a great disservice to their students by failing to position them for successful and reflective leadership. In fact, Deresiewicz questions their very definition of leadership as askance. Elite education no longer affords students the toolbox to offer refreshing visions and transformational change. Instead, they teach graduates to “keep the ship moving,” follow an established routine, conform to their superiors, and make conservative choices, if faced with any. And this definitional change in leadership does not apply solely to those working in government!
What struck me most about Deresiewicz’s argument is not how solidified bureaucratic society is—I have written about this in other posts, as well as the sources of this legitimacy—but how ubiquitous bureaucracy has altered society’s definition of leadership—and the education required thereof. Bureaucratic societies have little use for visionary thinkers, who often find themselves caught in the maws of bureaucracy. Sadly, this is exactly the point of bureaucracies. In fact, Weber noted in one of the first essays on modern bureaucracy that it is not about the bureaucrats themselves, but the institution as a whole. Bureaucracies can survive the departure of any one individual, or many individuals. The institution survives the transition of individuals; it serves as a timeless organization in which meaningless individuals perform bureaucratic tasks to maintain its goal of self-perpetuation. This may seem a harsh analysis of bureaucracy, but unfortunately, it is generally true, with few exceptions.
Citing Marlow’s journey up the Belgian Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Deresiewicz notes that schmoozers, routine thinkers, and task managers often excel in this structure of bureaucracy. To be sure, such people may bring “success” to their companies, governments, or battalions, but it is predicated upon the success of their predecessors. Today’s “leaders” merely ride the coattails of past generations. “What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at a specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise,” he says. “What we don’t have are leaders.”
The crucial connection between leadership and solitude, for Deresiewicz, is the ability to think. We must learn to be alone with our thoughts, to parse them out for ourselves. We have to take critical segments out of our day to make sense of the entire racket of modern life, and to check our consciousness to know we are not just sauntering along in “auto pilot.” In doing so, we have the chance to find ourselves, but this is entirely solitary work. “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to live to yourself,” said Michel de Montaigne in his little essay, “On Solitude.” For those unaccustomed to this type of loneliness, Deresiewicz suggests that in rare circumstances, with requisite trust, close friendships may provide the impetus for profound self-discovery because intimate conversation can open up the deepest parts of the soul to another. Affectionate friendship allows us to realize things that we even fail to tell ourselves.
Today’s energetic, high-achieving students are more than capable of answering questions, but they often do not know which questions to ask. This problem may be particularly acute in the military or other hierarchical organizations such as the Foreign Service. Deresiewicz approaches the solution to this problem in the education of future leaders, focusing particularly on the need for solitude and concentration on important questions—the timeless human questions. Thereby, he also focuses implicitly on the content of such an education, namely, arguing that students must engage the Classics for two main reasons. First, great books are the product of someone else’s solitude and thought process; second, great books have come repeatedly to the aid of readers on central questions of human importance, even if it merely reflects the conventional wisdom of its day.
What Deresiewicz’s scathing analysis sorely lacks is a discussion of organizational incentive. Can organizational structures remedy the paucity of leadership he explicates? Is there a “right” set of organizational incentives for doing business and for advancement? Can we augment the leadership potential of all those whose formal education has already passed? Surely, formal education is not the only medium to stimulate thinking (in fact, it may do the opposite, by giving the participant the “illusion of thought, when they are merely rearranging their prejudices,” according to William James). Not every leader in government, business, or education will be afforded the privilege of an elite, or liberal arts education. Moreover, there are plenty of liberal arts graduates in government and elsewhere who perceive the best path to advancement; rather than working outside of this path for the benefit of others and the whole system, they quite humanly take the easiest path to advancement.
We must conclude, therefore, that solitude is a learned habit of which all are capable, and that mere solitude is much different from effective solitude. Visionary and transformational leaders are those who master effective solitude, best utilize its virtues, feel comfortable in its loneliness, and draw inspiration and renewal from it.