Solitude and leadership

By William Deresiewicz

Part one of a lecture delivered to the Plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2010.

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.

Solitude one of the key aspects of true leadership

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. We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership: Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia and all our other major institutions – senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents and so forth – we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.

So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight ‘A’s make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even excellence have to be different things; otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.

An endless series of hoops

See, things have changed since I went to college in the 1980s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. We didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as middle school. Classes, standardised tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test preparation courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the Admissions Officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the ‘brag’ in admissions lingo – the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble.

Because the students who got in – in addition to perfect grades and top scores – usually had 10 or 12. So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colours. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep”. I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey Consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a Partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an Assistant Secretary in the Department of State.

Leaders are not people who know how to gather impressive titles

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. To explain why, I want to spend a few minutes talking about a novel that many of you may have read – Heart of Darkness. If you haven’t read it, you’ve probably seen Apocalypse Now, which is based on it. Marlow in the novel becomes Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. Kurtz in the novel becomes Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. But the novel isn’t about Vietnam – it’s about colonialism in the Belgian Congo three generations before Vietnam. Marlow, not a military officer but a merchant marine, a civilian ship’s captain, is sent by the company that’s running the country under charter from the Belgian crown to sail deep upriver, up the Congo River, to retrieve a manager who’s ensconced himself in the jungle and gone rogue, just like Colonel Kurtz does in the movie.

Now everyone knows that the novel is about imperialism and colonialism and race relations and the darkness that lies in the human heart, but it became clear to me at a certain point, as I taught the novel, that it is also about bureaucracy – what I called, a minute ago, hierarchy. The Company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy.

Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. Just like – and here’s why I’m telling you all this – just like the bureaucracy you are about to join. The word ‘bureaucracy’ tends to have negative connotations, but I say this in no way as a criticism, merely a description, that the US Army is a bureaucracy and one of the largest and most famously bureaucratic bureaucracies in the world. After all, it was the Army that gave us, among other things, the indispensable bureaucratic acronym ‘snafu’: ‘situation normal: all fouled up’ in the cleaned-up version. That comes from the US Army in World War II.

Life full of bureaucracies

You need to know that when you get your commission, you’ll be joining a bureaucracy, and however long you stay in the Army, you’ll be operating within a bureaucracy. As different as the armed forces are in so many ways from every other institution in society, in that respect they are the same. And so you need to know how bureaucracies operate, what kind of behaviour – what kind of character – they reward, and what kind they punish.

So, back to the novel. Marlow proceeds upriver by stages, just like Captain Willard does in the movie. First he gets to the Outer Station. Kurtz is at the Inner Station. In
between is the Central Station, where Marlow spends the most time, and where we get our best look at bureaucracy in action and the kind of people who succeed in it. This is Marlow’s description of the manager of the Central Station, the big boss: He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold … Otherwise there was only an indefinable,faint expression of his lips, something stealthy – a smile – not a smile – I remember it, but I can’t explain … He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts – nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust – just uneasiness – nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a…a… faculty can be. He had no genius for organising, for initiative, or for order even … He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him – why? … He originated nothing; he could keep the routine going – that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause.

Why are best stuck in the middle?

Note the adjectives: ‘commonplace’, ‘ordinary’, ‘usual’, ‘common’. There is nothing distinguished about this person. About the 10th time I read that passage, I realised it was a perfect description of the kind of person who tends to prosper in the bureaucratic environment. And the only reason I did is because it suddenly struck me that it was a perfect description of the head of the bureaucracy that I was part of, the Chairman of my academic department – who had that exact same smile, like a shark, and that exact same ability to make you uneasy, like you were doing something wrong, only she wasn’t ever going to tell you what.

Like the manager – and I’m sorry to say this, but like so many people you will meet as you negotiate the bureaucracy of the Army or for that matter of whatever institution
you end up giving your talents to after the Army, whether it’s Microsoft or the World Bank or whatever – the head of my department had no genius for organising or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going, and beyond that, as Marlow says, her position had come to her – why?

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. 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 manoeuvring. 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. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.

William Deresiewicz, an Associate Professor of English at Yale University until 2008, is a widely published literary critic. His writing appears in The Nation, The American Scholar, the London Review of Books and The New York Times. In 2008, he was nominated for a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism. His lecture appears here with his kind permission.

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Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2011

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