Must Innovative Leaders Be Solitary Creatures?

No doubt innovative solutions often burst out of two or more creatives’ rapping, dancing, and collaborating together. Steven Johnson makes the case in Where Good Ideas Come From. Social psychologists make the case. Joshua Wolf Shenk makes the case in a series on creative pairs at Slate.com and in a forthcoming book.

But in our brave new world of hyper-connectivity, what about solitude? What about real prolonged concentration – that sweet sustained focus on one idea? What about the capacity to think, really think, for yourself?

Thinker William Deresiewicz delivered a lecture called “Solitude and Leadership” (reprinted in The American Scholar) to West Point’s plebe class. Here are some highlights:

* To be accepted into Ivy League schools requires you to become “excellent sheep” early in life.
* Most college programs reward you for being “excellent hoop-jumpers.”
* This education prepares you for a life of corporate, military, or other bureaucratic mediocrity. “[F]or too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.”

* True leadership – like that of General Petraeus – requires four things:
1) moral courage (the capacity to think for yourself and to act on your convictions);
2) the capacity to concentrate;
3) long periods of introspection;
4) true friendship that involves intimate conversation.

* “[I]t seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.”

Deresiewicz’s comments come at a time in which many of us are radically questioning our bureaucracies – education, corporate, political. I’m curious particularly about the paradox of higher education and to what extent exceptional college programs do or do not encourage what ostensibly is their purpose: to teach us how to think for ourselves.

And there’s the paradox, of course, isn’t it? As our minds mature, we typically do need the right mentors to facilitate our thinking for ourselves, to ask us the hard questions, to answer our questions with more questions. So learn how to think for ourselves, we need others. We need close friendships, intimate conversations, situations with other people that challenge our faculties, good books that model sustained thinking.

So what’s the balance?

Drop in the Hut:
How do you cultivate solitude? How do you keep tracking that emotion of wide-open thinking and re-seeing: wonder? Id’ love to hear what are your practices that help you think for yourself and not be swayed by “conventional wisdom” – even the current conventional wisdom that purports to challenge the conventional wisdom.

See you in the woods,

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  1. I try to get up earlier than everyone else; leaving the books alone, the social media devices off…allowing my mind to dance…to take lead!
    I try to get out in to nature allowing myself to breathe the same air the trees do, allowing the bird songs to take over human voice, human thought, and the noises of the human created world.
    I ask God for his wisdom, for his direction, for his purposes and plans…for his creativity to flow freely through me!
    I try very hard to protect these times. To be honest, busyness crowds this space more than I’d like!

    1. Nikki: Yes, early morning seems to be a time of choice for many, many leaders. I find that getting up early starts by preparing my mind for the rising the previous evening.

  2. I also get up early and take time for prayer and meditation, followed by writing. Makes a huge difference in my day if I don’t do this. I love the quote from William Deresiewicz about how our educational system mostly prepares people to be a cog in the machine–and a mediocre one at that. Great post.

    1. Charlotte: Those first activities do shape the rest of the day, don’t they? I often advise my clients to shape at least three mornings a week to engage in their personal creative work before they address the obligations. Tending to our best creative work is our responsibility.

  3. I so agree with the sad state of what education has become, the reward is now offered only for a regurgitation of the ” facts” presented on the proverbial soap box versus true creative and risky out of the box thinking. Disagreement has become gauche.

  4. Paula: Yes, in general, that seems the case. There are some renegade teachers, renegade deans, renegade campuses trying to change things. But it’s not easy to change an institution. Thanks for posting.