Solitude and Leadership

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.

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12 Responses to Solitude and Leadership

  1. Carmen September 19, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    I agree with the multitasking comment, but I think it has more to do with trying to do too many things at once time vs. doing a lot of things serially. Being able to juggle a lot of things intellectually and tactically is important for a manager or leader.

    It seems as though what Deresiewicz is saying is that the current crop of leaders is actually too narrow-minded – lots of depth at one thing but no ability to take their head out of the sand or even be interested in what others are doing. This narrow focus coupled with a “not invented here” attitude I bet are responsible for a lot of the silo mentality that seems to be prevalent whenever an org reaches critical mass (company, politics, etc.)

    Of course it’s more complicated than just being a generalist or specialist – because you need both the experts and the people who can get the experts together and synthesize ideas, decisions, information across boundaries. I guess the question is – how easy is it for someone who rose through the ranks as an expert to look outside their comfort zone or field of interest after many years.

    One thing I do wonder is if years of being a multi-tasker or manager dulls certain skills. So whereas an individual contributor spends a lot of time in deep thought & analysis, a leader is looking at 20 things a day, making 20 decisions, etc. The intellectual sharpness that comes from really digging into something may be diminished in favor of quick movement of thought. Not sure how one gets around that.

  2. Anonymous September 22, 2010 at 5:51 am #

    What Darwin actually said was ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most
    intelligent, but the most responsive to change’ – and I think you’ll find the platypus is happily adapted to its environment.

  3. Ted Sapountzis September 22, 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    Jonathan,

    Your post is spot on, and I wanted to add a comment related to your original frustration. Whether we like it or not, the apprenticeship model is alive and well and this recent Economist article (http://www.economist.com/node/16990691?story_id=16990691) sums it up for me:
    it’s not how good you are, but how well you play the game.
    It is only when we begin to value talent and not the ‘political maneuvering’ abilities of leaders, that we will be able to “Be the change you want to see in the world” as Mahatma Gandhi so aptly said.

    I know this is a very utopian view, but we have to start somewhere….

    • Natascha Tomson September 23, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

      I think this is one of the reasons why there are less women in leadership. I read an article in the NYT a while ago about executive women who gave up their leadership roles because they were so tired of “the game”. I guess, the bigger the organization, the harder it gets to get along and make things happen – and in the end people do things for people (or themselves), not for companies.

  4. Natascha Tomson September 23, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    Your blog “Solitute and Leadership” is compelling. Yet, a typical high tech interview question is “how well can you multi task”? There also seems to be a culture of having to be busy all the time. Taking time out to sit and think does not fit into that “I am busy” culture, it seems.

    Related to this topic, I’ve been wondering for a while now how successful people compartmentalize their social media consumption. We used to read the paper in the morning and watch the news at night. Now we can have it all, all the time. Do most people still reserve specific times to consume news or check it off and on all day long?

  5. Robert E September 27, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    People are driven by the power and privileges that being a “leader” in an organization provides. The top of the heap are the most driven. Desire and determination trump talent any day.

    Fortunately for all of us, there can be leaders that are driven as well as visionary. Certainly, there aren’t many, but I hope that doesn’t discourage you.

    It would certainly take solitude to refocus your vision from the prejustices, presumptions, and prescriptions of a myriad of voices. You would need that distance of solitude to balance the drive to lead with the mere temptations of being the boss.

    It can be difficult to give yourself the needed time to just think, and the higher in an organization, the less free time you are given.

    Most companies don’t do that either, they don’t have their leaders take the time to think strategically. Maybe it does come down to how you define (or redefine) success.

  6. Jonathan September 27, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    Anonymous: Thanks for the correction on the quote but I’m not sure whether we can say whether the platypus is happy ot not.

    Natascha: I stil leave a specific time to check news. And since reading this article, I no longer value multi-tasking as much as I used to.

  7. Pushkar October 7, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    Jonathan the trouble maker at his best :-). Keep stirring the pot my friend.

  8. Dan Wellers November 18, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    As a father of teenage boys, I witness this issue all the time in the form of trying to do homework while texting on the phone while video chatting on Facebook while watching TV. Guess what suffers.

    As with most things there’s a balance between “multitasking”, which is an important skill for leaders AND individual contributors, and “continuous partial attention”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuous_Partial_Attention

    where we don’t focus on anything enough to do it well.
    To find the right balance you have to first separate the two so you can sense when you’re slipping into CPA!

    My boys don’t get it yet, but I continue to have faith.

  9. Melinda November 28, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    I have indeed discovered how lonley it is at “the top.” I do appreciate the solitude, most of the time.

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