Leaders and Solitude

When thinking about what makes a leader effective, words like energetic, decisive, fast paced, charismatic, and “able to multitask” come to mind.  While all of these traits are commonly found in leaders, one practice that leaders consistently neglect to their peril is carving out time for solitary reflection, argue Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in their new book Lead Yourself First.  “If I was to sum up the single biggest problem with leadership in the information age,” says retired General and current Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, “it’s a lack of reflection.  Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting.”  In Lead Yourself First, the authors reveal how some of history’s most courageous and dynamic leaders gained clarity before making crucial decisions through regularly withdrawing into solitude.

Solitude played a critical role for Dwight Eisenhower in his decision making leading up to the D-Day invasion.  Deciding when and whether to launch the D-Day invasion provoked lengthy discussion and debate between Eisenhower and his closest advisors.  Meeting after meeting generated myriad perspectives as to how and when to act.  Although Eisenhower was best known as a man of action, after particularly frustrating meetings he would often retreat to his office and write.  Eisenhower believed that the single most rigorous way to think about a situation was to be alone and write about it.  He would take whatever time was necessary, in solitude, to distill his thoughts into a succinct, clearly reasoned memo.  Writing in solitude helped him clarify his thoughts, as well as stabilize himself emotionally.  According to biographer Stephen Ambrose, “One of Eisenhower’s characteristics was his desire to simplify.  Faced with a complex situation, he usually tried to separate it into essentials, extract a principal point, and then make that point his guiding star for all decisions.”   And for Eisenhower, this was best done through writing in solitude.

Other examples of leaders who regularly engaged in times of solitude include Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant.  During the darkest days of the Nazi bombing of London during World War II, Churchill regularly retreated to his office to collect his thoughts and write.  Albert Einstein once described his typical day at Princeton as teaching class 20% of the time and staring out the window 80% of the time.  Abraham Lincoln would use private time in his bedroom for emotional release (sometimes breaking into tears), or to write emotional letters, most of which he never sent.  Ulysses Grant sat on a stump whittling, in deep thought, while some of the fiercest Civil War battles raged around him.

Time spent in solitude can also help us tap into our “intuitive” brain when making tough decisions.  We often think of our intuition as something that comes to us in the moment, something that allows us to make snap judgements.  Not so, according to the authors.  Rather, our intuition works best when quiet and solitude allow us to draw upon all of our past and present experiences, and then make subconscious connections that lead to the best decisions.  Contrary to popular perception, intuition is based on a far broader range of information and experiences than analytical thinking. It is accessed most effectively through time in solitude, and requires mental quiet to break through the surface of conscious thought.

The authors of Lead Yourself First argue that leaders have a responsibility to their followers to seek out periods of solitude.  Quite simply, it makes them better leaders.  They outline several concrete, practical strategies that help leaders do this.  Block out a certain number of days per month as “no meeting” days.  Make it clear that there are times you won’t access texts and emails immediately.  Take time for physical exercise.  Take time to sit alone in your study.  And finally, prepare for solitude.  Identify the issue you will think about in solitude in advance, and then review relevant material before going into your time of solitude.

Busy isn’t always better.  Multitasking isn’t necessarily a sign of a great leader.  Take time for solitude.