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
Leadership isn’t something you can teach; it’s something you have to embody.
It’s maneuvering, not being an “excellent sheep” that helps you reckon with hierarchy, and ultimately “gets you up greasy pole of bureaucracy.”
We are constantly negotiating the opinions of others (through social media and those we surround ourselves with).
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.
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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Learning how to think — The journey of learning requires patience, concentration, and most importantly time for thinking.