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Solitude and Leadership

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word, "solitude"?  Do you find yourself giving the word a negative connotation?  Do you associate it with loneliness?  Merriam-Webster defines "solitude" as "the quality or state of being alone or remote from society."  For me, it's that and more.  The opportunities I have had to identify who I choose to be and what I want out of life because of that solitude have afforded me a sense of what I feel my purpose is in this life.  The active practice of solitude has provided me with countless opportunities to gain clarity on issues that I may be facing, calm my mind when things feel overwhelming, and simply get away and enjoy the environment around me; whether that's the top of a mountain, on a park bench, or even in the middle of a crowded gym.  There is a lot to be gained when practicing solitude.

Some people have labeled me as "anti-social" and that I "think I'm better than people" because I tend to seek opportunities for solitude. I'm not anti-social, I'm pro-solitude.

Clarity is a result of practiced solitude.  I have been able to receive incredible moments of clarity when I take the time to invest in solitude.  I've done this a multitude of ways; going on walks, going on a hike, going to the gym, etc.  Keep in mind, just because I am wearing headphones and working out at the gym where there are a multitude of people doesn't mean that I'm not practicing solitude.  It's an interesting dichotomy to be alone and yet surrounded by people.  It isn't a matter of loneliness, it's a matter of chosen and purposeful solitude.

"The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude." 

- Voltaire

The ways solitude provides clarity:

Analytically: the type of clarity you achieve when there is an intense influx of information and ideas.  In other words, heavy lifting and deep thinking.  What will set you apart is the ability to think long and hard about many different topics.  Don't become a sucker for irrelevancy.  Train your mind to think deeply just like you'd train your body to perform when you demand it.  Being able to identify the information that matters versus the information that doesn't allows you to increase the speed at which you can make this differentiation.  

Intuitively: the type of clarity that comes when you quiet your mind and listen to your internal self.  A lot of times we allow external sources to influence us on the choices and decisions we make.  Social media is a perfect example of how we welcome distraction into our lives.  Imagine if you logged (iPhone will do this for you) what percentage of your time and how many minutes you spent on social media apps.  Now, think about how your life would be different if you took that time and applied it to reading a book or taking a class.  We are all guilty of this to some extent.  What will set you apart in this is the result of the productivity and/or knowledge gained.

How solitude can make you a better leader: 

There is an amazing article by William Deresiewicz titled "Solitude and Leadership" he gave to the graduating class back in 2009.  In this article, Deresiewicz talks about how we should focus more on being a TRUE leader instead of what he refers to as an "excellent sheep" (someone who checks all the required boxes, but can't adaptively think through a process on their own).  He notes that in a bureaucratic environment, adjectives like commonplace, ordinary, usual, common are used to describe the kind of people who prosper in said bureaucratic environments, the "excellent sheep".  He asks (and then answers), 

"Why is it so often that the best people 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 a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him 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. Just keeping the routine going."

He goes on to say, "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. People, in other words, with vision..."

So, what does Deresiewicz consider a true leader?  He describes them as people who "...think independently, creatively, flexibly...deploy a whole range of skills in a fluid and complex situation...People who know how to do more than follow orders and execute routines."

In other words, people who do more than just "check boxes".

Certainly, while clarity, creativity (in solving problems) and emotional balance are important factors when it comes to being a leader, I feel that having moral courage is the defining trait that leaders are called to possess.  Look at the leaders of our nation; Washington, Lincoln, King...not conforming to a status quo complacent mindset is crucial, especially where lives are on the line.  Movements were started with someone having the moral courage to look at a situation and say to themselves (and to others), "that's not right!"

"To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul.  To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions."

-Deepak Chopra

How to inject more solitude into your life:

Here are some examples on how you can introduce more moments of solitude into your life.  As with anything, the FIRST step toward progression is recognition of a problem or a need/desire to make progress.  That being said, here's a short list that I came up with:

1. Recognize just how much your time is consumed by social media

2. Consciously refrain from use of social media

3. Turn the radio/music off when driving

4. Have lunch alone

5. Set a timer; set a timer on your phone where you will go sit apart from those around you and spend that time clearing your mind and thinking about issues and challenges that you may be facing.

Reading Recommendations:

1. Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin

2. Solitude and Leadership by William Deresiewicz

If you enjoyed reading this post about solitude and leadership, please take a look at the reading recommendations and please like/share and leave your thoughts in the comments!  Thanks for reading and as always, #BeHardToKill

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