Throughout history, leaders have used solitude as a matter of course. Martin Luther King found moral courage while sitting alone at his kitchen table one night during the Montgomery bus boycott. Jane Goodall used her intuition in the jungles of central Africa while learning how to approach chimps. Solitude is a state of mind, a space where you can focus on your own thoughts without distraction, with a power to bring mind and soul together in clear-eyed conviction. But these days, handheld devices and other media leave us awash with the thoughts of others. We are losing solitude without even realizing it.
To find solitude today, a leader must make a conscious effort. This book explains why the effort is worthwhile and how to make it. Through gripping historical accounts and firsthand interviews with a wide range of contemporary leaders, Raymond Kethledge (a federal court of appeals judge) and Michael Erwin (a West Pointer and three-tour combat veteran) show how solitude can enhance clarity, spur creativity, sustain emotional balance, and generate the moral courage necessary to overcome adversity and criticism. Anyone who leads anyoneincluding oneselfcan benefit from solitude. With a foreword by Jim Collins (author of the bestseller Good to Great), Lead Yourself First is a rallying cry to reclaim solitudeand all the benefits, both practical and sublime, that come with it.
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About the Author
Michael S. Erwin is a graduate of West Point and served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is now the CEO of the Character & Leadership Center, the president of the Positivity Project, and the founder and chairman of Team Red, White & Blue. He lives in North Carolina.
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Lead Yourself First
Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude
By Raymond M. Kethledge, Michael S. Erwin
Bloomsbury Publishing PlcCopyright © 2017 Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin
All rights reserved.
Of all the decisions Dwight Eisenhower ever made as a leader, none was more important than his decision to launch the D-day invasion on June 6, 1944, rather than two weeks later. That decision brought great risk: at the time Eisenhower made it, there was a strong possibility that the weather would prevent any reinforcements from landing on June 7, in which case the troops who landed the day before might be pushed out to sea. But a decision to delay the invasion would have brought great risks of a different sort, not least that the Germans would find out where the Allies planned to land. Eisenhower had to weigh all those risks, and choose between them. He did so only after obtaining — through deliberate effort — the greatest possible clarity as to which choice offered the best chance of success.
Clarity is often a difficult thing for a leader to obtain. Concerns of the present tend to loom larger than potentially greater concerns that lie farther away. Some decisions by their nature present great complexity, whose many variables must align a certain way for the leader to succeed. Compounding the difficulty, now more than ever, is what ergonomists call information overload, where a leader is overrun with inputs — via e-mails, meetings, and phone calls — that only distract and clutter his thinking. Alternatively, the leader's information might be only fragmentary, which might cause her to fill in the gaps with assumptions — sometimes without recognizing them as such. And the merits of a leader's most important decisions, by their nature, typically are not clear-cut. Instead those decisions involve "a process of assigning weights to competing interests, and then determining, based upon some criterion, which one predominates. The result is one of judgment, of shades of gray; like saying that Beethoven is a better composer than Brahms."
Solitude offers ways for leaders to obtain greater clarity. A leader who thinks through a complex problem by hard analytical work — as Eisenhower did before D-day — can identify the conditions necessary to solve it. A leader who silences the din not only around her mind, but inside it, can then hear the delicate voice of intuition, which may have already made connections that her conscious mind has not. And a leader who is aware of his weaknesses can guard against them.
Other benefits are more spiritual, but no less important because of it. The best work is inspired work. A reflective leader will ask not only what decision she should make, but whether and how her actions advance some larger purpose. A party of mountain climbers does not seek merely to climb the mountain. A teacher can teach his students more than just the subject of his class. A parent of a child with special needs might find profound meaning in the struggles of her child and herself alike. The most inspiring leaders are ones who find a clarity of meaning that transcends the tasks at hand. And that meaning emerges through reflection.
The foundation of both analytical and intuitive clarity is an uncluttered mind. Bill George illustrates one way to obtain it. George was a highly successful CEO of Medtronic Inc., among other executive positions. He now teaches at Harvard Business School and is the author of the bestselling True North, in which he advocates that leaders reflect on their core values as a means of setting the vector of their leadership.
"A critical element of effective leadership is not to let the immediate take precedence over the important," George says. "Today's world puts too much emphasis on the immediate. That's a perpetual danger for leaders." George emphasizes that reflection is not only for introverts. "I'm a very active, extroverted person who likes to get a lot done," he says. "In my thirties I was going strong, doing well in my career, with one child and another on the way." But in those days his energy was spent before he came home each day. "I'd work until seven or eight each night, eat dinner, read a magazine, and then zone out."
Around that time, however, George began a daily meditation practice, specifically transcendental meditation. He says, "I don't know how TM works, but it does. TM allows you to slow down, to reflect. As a relaxation process, and a process for introspection, it couldn't be better."
The process of transcendental meditation is simple. The practitioner (i.e., the person meditating) ideally meditates for two twenty-minute sessions per day, one before the workday and one near the end of it, though even one session is vastly better than none. During each session, the practitioner seeks to focus exclusively on a "mantra" that he repeats over and over in his head. The mantra itself is usually a word with no hard consonants and no inherent meaning to the practitioner. ("Ayam" is an example.) What the practitioner usually finds, however, is that his mind repeatedly slips away from the mantra, to focus instead on different thought streams that spring up seemingly on their own. These thoughts usually concern events that recently evoked some response from the practitioner: contentment, pride, joy, but more often feelings like anxiety, worry, or fear. During those more negative thought streams, the practitioner's heart rate might increase and he might literally feel nervous energy coursing through him. But that process — of focusing on the mantra, and then having it displaced by thought streams that are themselves driven by pent-up nervous energy — is a way of dissipating those thoughts and the nervous energy that goes with them. This process — which practitioners call "purification" — might take more or less time during a meditation session, depending on how worked up the practitioner was when he began. George says his "thoughts usually settle out around ten to twelve minutes in." When the process is done, the practitioner feels a serenity, and a stillness, in which solitary insights — intuitions, really — sometimes stand out in stark relief, often before the meditation session is over. Afterward the practitioner is able to focus on what he wants to focus on, without a lot of background noise. That enhances a leader's ability to analyze problems. "Things seem to be clear when I'm done," George says of his meditation sessions. "Then I grab a piece of paper and start writing down ideas."
Peter Crawford is something of a solitude renaissance man, in the sense that he uses solitude in a variety of ways. A native of Northern California with degrees from Yale and Stanford Business School, Peter is an alumnus of McKinsey Consulting and now a senior executive at Schwab. "For me solitude brings all kinds of benefits," he says. "Cognitive, emotional, spiritual. Also physical." Growing up, he sought out solitude at "pivotal times. One night in high school I was stressing out about college applications. So I got on my bike and rode out into the Presidio. I rode around for an hour with no lights. I just needed to get away." In college, the summer before his senior year at Yale, when his classmates had internships at Bain and Goldman Sachs, Peter worked as a backcountry ranger in Washington State. "I was clearing my head to make decisions about what I'd do after my senior year. I needed that clarity."
As an executive at Schwab, Peter makes solitude part of his daily routine — though he says that "I actually didn't think of it as solitude before you mentioned it." Every morning Peter wakes at five a.m., exercises, and then goes to work early. "The first hour of the day is the best for thinking," he says. "In the morning light my mind is fresh and clear. It's like stripping away all the cookies on a computer. Once they're cleared, my mind works better."
Peter also finds clarity on night runs near his home. His practice is similar to the Buddhist practice of "walking meditation," where, instead of focusing on a mantra, the practitioner seeks to focus exclusively on the physical act of walking — lifting one foot and then the other. Peter runs with a headlamp that allows him to see ten feet ahead. "No music, no headphones," he says. "I go blank. Just focusing on my gait. Just clearing out my mind."
Liza Howard likewise clears her mind on long runs — in her case, very long runs. Liza is one of the world's elite ultramarathoners, competing and often winning 100-mile races in venues around the world. (Her fastest time for a 100-miler is 15 hours, 7 minutes — a 100-mile pace of 9 minutes per mile.) Typically she runs through the hills of Southwest Texas, on rocky trails with oak and juniper trees in some places, and cactus and sotol in others.
Liza's description of what running does for her echoes Bill George's description of what meditation does for him: "It's a distilling process," she says. "The detritus of daily living drops down, and I'm left with what's important." But the process itself is different: "A good part of your attention is consumed in the physical act. There's only so much attention left over. That leads to focus." Retired Marine Corps General James Mattis makes the same point. "A physically vigorous life is not incompatible with a contemplative life," he says. "The loss of nervous energy into a physical act creates a clarity of thinking."
Solitude also facilitates structured thinking, which in turn is essential to analytical clarity. Peter Crawford writes memos to himself as a way of clarifying his thoughts. "I usually don't send them to anyone. I'm just collecting my thoughts in a structured way." The practice reaches back to his days at McKinsey. "They put such a premium on clarity there." His memos follow a storyline: "Here's the situation — here's the challenge we face — here's what we should do. It's the McKinsey model of situation, complication, resolution."
As a husband and father of two children, Peter now engages in the same practice at home. "I keep a parenting journal," he says. "Initially, I just wanted to record cute, poignant moments so that I could remember them later. But I began to realize that I could use the journal to collect my thoughts as a parent, about troubles we're having, tough decisions we're facing. Parenting brings emotional highs and lows, anguish, questioning, second-guessing." Usually he makes his journal entries late at night. "Sometimes when I retreat I'm frazzled, spent. But then I collect my thoughts and come back with a new perspective, more resilient."
Like Peter Crawford, Sarah Dillard uses solitude to gather her thoughts in a structured way. Sarah is an educational entrepreneur, with experience as a senior official in the federal Department of Education. She also played a leading role in the merger of two school districts in Memphis — one comprising mostly black students, the other mostly white — which remains to this day the largest merger of school districts in U.S. history. More recently, she was an executive at Quad Learning, a consulting firm that advises community colleges about how to increase their graduation rates. She now runs SPD Advisory, an education-consulting firm of her own. "For me, there's a difference between my everyday routine of solitude and the big version of it," she says. Her everyday routine begins with a fifteen-minute walk to work in Washington, D.C. "My morning practice is prospective rather than reflective. I'm setting the table for the day, identifying the things I need to work on, the things I need to accomplish." While at work, she keeps open in the background of her computer a document where, on a rolling basis, she records events that trigger an emotional response. "I color-code each entry," she says. "Green means I felt good about it, red means I felt bad. Things that I'd do differently I code in purple." Then, every Wednesday morning, she works at home for a few hours to review her entries without interruptions. "I'm making connections between things in my notes. And I'm reflecting on how we did. What things worked? What didn't? I'm learning about how the team is performing."
Sarah follows the same approach — gathering data, and then reflecting on it — in evaluating the performance of each person she leads. "I do one-on-one meetings with the people who work with me. After each meeting, I record in Google Notes what we talked about during the meeting. Once per quarter I go back and review my notes from my meetings with each person. Sometimes I'll connect things I hadn't seen before. Or I'll notice progress. Or I'll realize things I've done wrong, things I should apologize for."
Sarah makes a point to reflect at a company-wide level as well. "I can't imagine how someone doing a start-up wouldn't do reflection," she says. "In a start-up you have to learn fast, or it's not going to work. Reflection is the key way to learn. You have open loops of things you're doing for the first time. If you're just caught up in what's happening, if you don't reflect, you're not closing those loops. You're not learning the best way to do those things." She also says that "in a start-up you're going to encounter 'unknown unknowns.' You need to process and learn from those. Otherwise you won't be clear about what happened."
Nate Fick uses time alone for both analysis and intuition. "You have to structure in time for solitude," says Fick, author of the bestselling memoir One Bullet Away. "Otherwise you're just reacting to other people's thoughts, rather than driving the direction yourself."
Fick is a former Marine Recon officer, having served in the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. He later served as the president of the Center for a New American Security, an influential national-security think tank in Washington. He is now the CEO of Endgame Inc., a firm specializing in cyber-threat defenses. "I tell my assistant I need ninety minutes a day on my calendar to close the door and think," he says. The same goes for the people who work for him: "I tell my subordinates that two days each month, no one has any meetings. Otherwise the days get so hectic that you have no time to process or to think. The only way to combat it, short of what Thoreau did, is structurally to build in the space."
Fick finds ways to resist today's norm of constant connectivity. "At some point the inputs become intrusions," he says. "I used to have this phone that had a blinking light on it in my office at home. I would get frustrated to have that light blinking at me whenever I had a message on there. So I threw it out and bought a 1970s rotary phone. No voicemail, no flashing light on there. It's been a marked improvement." He also seeks solitude outdoors. "I sail on Chesapeake Bay," he says. His sailboat is "big enough to take the family, but small enough to single-sail. The boat would be worthless to me if I couldn't single-sail it."
Fick accesses intuition during time alone. "That's when stuff percolating in the subconscious crystallizes and takes form." The process often occurs during a run, which for Fick can stretch ninety minutes or more. "I often start a run thinking, 'Here's what I need to figure out.' So I start thinking about that, and then after two minutes I'm off onto something else. But almost inevitably, by the time I'm done running, I'll have circled back and finished my thinking about that issue. It was percolating the whole time."
Peter Crawford describes the same phenomenon during his runs. "Usually, what happens is that there is something that I'm struggling with — a strategic question, a presentation that I'm supposed to make, a conversation that I need to have, an organizational decision that I need to make. I don't consciously think about it when I'm running, but an idea or the answer will suddenly pop into my head — either as I'm running or quite often soon after I finish. Things get cleared out in my head, so either the idea finds its way to the surface or the mechanics of my brain work better and are more easily able to process the problem in the background."
Excerpted from Lead Yourself First by Raymond M. Kethledge, Michael S. Erwin. Copyright © 2017 Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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Table of Contents
A Note About Structure xi
1 Clarity 3
2 Analytical Clarity Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1944 24
3 The Stillness of Intuition Jane Goodall, 1960 41
4 Creativity 53
5 "Suppose We Were a Thing Intangible" T. E. Lawrence, 1917 68
6 Emotional Balance 79
7 Acceptance Abraham Lincoln, 1863 97
8 Catharsis Ulysses S. Grant, 1864 105
9 Magnanimity Aung San Suu Kyi, 1990 118
10 Moral Courage 129
11 "A Sublime Power to Rise Above" Winston Churchill, 1938 142
12 "No Never Alone" Martin Luther King Jr., 1956 153
13 The Dignity Not to Conform Pope John Paul II, 1979 166
Embracing Solitude 181