Last year William Deresiewicz delivered this stinging indictment on the state of leadership in America:
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. […] They are ‘excellent sheep.’
For months after I read the article in the American Scholar, I was angry and wanted to find some way counter Deresiewicz’ claims. While clearly all leaders are not excellent, they all aren’t sheep either. In my own experience, management follows a Darwinian model; the fittest typically survive the longest. The platypus is the exception, not the rule.
I have come to believe Deresiewicz was being intentional provocative to make a point: the best don’t always get ahead. However, I recently re-read the article and realized I am even more troubled by another section:
What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise.
What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. […] People, in other words, with vision.
While it is also provocative, this second sentiment rings more true to me. We increasingly seem to value the generalist over the specialist. The person who multitasks over the person who focuses. But research has shown that people are not good at multitasking. It impairs your ability to think for yourself and increases the likelihood that you rely on conventional wisdom. Surprisingly, the more people multitask, the worse they become; not just at other mental abilities but at multitasking itself. This holds true from college students to adults.
While I pride myself in being a generalist, I recognize that I have more original thoughts, more insights into problems, when I remove distractions and allow myself to concentrate for longer periods of time. This isn’t in itself surprising but it does go against the realities of the modern workplace. Between meetings, email, mobile phones, social media and other distractions, there’s rarely time to just think. Deresiewicz urges us that the only way to be a true leader – to develop deep insights and vision - is to separate ourselves from distractions.
There’s an old phrase that says it’s lonely at the top. I believe this wholeheartedly. But solitude may be the secret for good leadership.