Leadership Lessons from William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz is is an American author, essayist, and literary critic. He is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. His lecture Solitude and Leadership given to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2009 went viral. In it, he argues that

Photo by  Sam Carter

Photo by Sam Carter

  1. Leadership isn’t something you can teach; it’s something you have to embody.

  2. It’s maneuvering, not being an “excellent sheep” that helps you reckon with hierarchy, and ultimately “gets you up greasy pole of bureaucracy.”

  3. We are constantly negotiating the opinions of others (through social media and those we surround ourselves with).

  4. Leaders need to be introspective; they need time alone with their thoughts and ideas so they know why and where they are leading.

While a contradiction to a lot of today’s common practice, Solitude also an antidote to many of our ills.

I love how he opens his speech….

My title must seem like a contradiction. 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. And 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-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. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.

and

The very rigor and regimentation to which you are quite properly subject here naturally has a tendency to make you lose touch with the passion that brought you here in the first place. I saw exactly the same kind of thing at Yale. It’s not that my students were robots. Quite the reverse. They were intensely idealistic, but the overwhelming weight of their practical responsibilities, all of those hoops they had to jump through, often made them lose sight of what those ideals were. Why they were doing it all in the first place.

… Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even 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.

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If you liked this, you’ll love:

Learning how to think — The journey of learning requires patience, concentration, and most importantly time for thinking.

The Prepared Mind: Learning How To Think

 
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“I’ve spent my life trying to undo habits—especially habits of thinking. They narrow your interaction with the world. They’re the phrases that come easily to your mind, like: ‘I know what I think,’ or ‘I know what I like,’ or ‘I know what’s going to happen today.’ If you just replace ‘know’ with ‘don’t know,’ then you start to move into the unknown. And that’s where the interesting stuff happens.”  — Humans of New York

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The ability to think critically through problems, especially when it matters, is a skill we are not taught and are therefore unpracticed. We are taught in school and later in our careers to recognize information—and that is a useful but very different skill. The problem with being told information, especially information we think we already know or that we should know, is that we dismiss it. For example, we are told sugar and caffeine provide a temporary boost in energy but over time deplete energy. Our brain dutifully files that information. But it files it as recognition, not as experience. Without experience, there is little inquiry, exploration of the truth or falsity of the data.

Schools don’t teach you a method of thinking deeply. That is hard work you have to engage in yourself. Those who do it well get an advantage and those that do it poorly pay a tax.

If we don’t think critically about the decisions we make in our lives and in our work, we are much more likely to make several poor decisions. These poor decisions cost us dearly in time, money, and energy and are one of the reasons we’re so busy—busy correcting mistakes. Good thinking, on the other hand, produces better initial decisions and frees up time, money, and energy for other things.

I’ve read Solitude and Leadership, an essay by William Deresiewicz before. In it are some very valuable leadership lessons. However, after Peter Kaufman prompted a re-visit to the very same essay, I realized that I missed a key part.

How do you learn to think?

Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators 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 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. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. 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.

I find for myself that 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 think about it, too, 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—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—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.

The best way to improve your ability to think is to spend time thinking.

“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”

— William Deresiewicz