Solitude and leadership

| October 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts

By William Deresiewicz

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

Itell you this to forewarn you, because I promise you that you will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. And I tell you for one other reason. As I thought about these things and put all these pieces together – the kind of students I had, the kind of leadership they were being trained for, the kind of leaders I saw in my own institution – I realised that this is a national problem. We have a crisis of leadership in this country, in every institution. Not just in government. Look at what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors or Trans World Airlines (TWA) or US Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.

Finally – and I know I’m on sensitive ground here – look at what happened during the first four years of the Iraq War. We were stuck. It wasn’t the fault of the enlisted ranks or the noncoms1 or the junior officers. It was the fault of the senior leadership, whether military or civilian or both. We weren’t just not winning, we weren’t even changing direction.

A crisis of leadership

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for 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 can fulfil goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. 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 are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army – a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision. Now some people would say, great. Tell this to the kids at Yale, but why bother telling it to the ones at West Point? Most people, when they think of this institution, assume that it’s the last place anyone would want to talk about thinking creatively or cultivating independence of mind. It’s the Army, after all. It’s no accident that the word regiment is the root of the word regimentation. Surely you who have come here must be the ultimate conformists. Must be people who have bought in to the way things are and have no interest in changing it. Are not the kind of young people who think about the world, who ponder the big issues, who question authority. If you were, you would have gone to Amherst or Pomona. You’re at West Point to be told what to do and how to think.

The idea of democratic spirit

But you know that’s not true. I know it, too; other wise I would never have been invited to talk to you, and I’m ev en more convinced of it now that I’ve spent a few days on campus. To quote Colonel Scott Krawczyk, your Course Director, in a lecture he gave last year to English 102:

“From the ver y earliest days of this country, the model for our officers, which was built on the model of the citizenr y and reflective of democratic ideals, was to be different. They were to be possessed of a democratic spirit marked by independent judgment, the freedom to measure action and to express disagreement, and the crucial responsibility never to tolerate ty ranny.”

All the more so now. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the last few years understands that the changing nature of warfare means that officers, including junior officers, are required more than ever to be able to think independently, creatively, flexibly. To deploy a whole range of skills in a fluid and complex situation. Lieutenant colonels who are essentially functioning as provincial governors in Iraq, or captains who find themselves in charge of a remote town somewhere in Afghanistan. People who know how to do more than follow orders and execute routines.

Look at the most successful, most acclaimed, and perhaps the finest soldier of his generation, General David Petraeus.3 He’s one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons. He is a thinker. He is an intellectual. In fact, Prospect magazine named him Public Intellectual of the Year in 2008 – that’s in the world. He has a PhD from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a PhD or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point. I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.

Petraeus can think and lead

No, what makes him a thinker – and a leader – is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

It wasn’t always easy for him. His path to where he is now was not a straight one. When he was running Mosul2 in 2003 as Commander of the 101st Airborne and developing the strategy he would later formulate in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and then ultimately apply throughout Iraq, he pissed a lot of people off. He was way ahead of the leadership in Baghdad and Washington, and bureaucracies don’t like that sort of thing. Here he was, just another two-star, and he was saying, implicitly but loudly, that the leadership was wrong about the way it was running the war. Indeed, he was not rewarded at first. He was put in charge of training the Iraqi army, which was considered a blow to his career, a dead-end job. But he stuck to his guns, and ultimately he was vindicated. Ironically, one of the central elements of his counterinsurgency strategy is precisely the idea that officers need to think flexibly, creatively and independently.

William Deresiewicz, formerly an Associate Professor of English at Yale University until 2008, is a widely published literary critic. His criticism directed at a popular audience 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.

References:

1 Non-commissioned officers

2 Mosul is a city located in the northern part of Iraq. It is also the capital of the Ninawa Governorate, which is located about 250 miles north-west of Baghdad.

3 US Army General David H. Patraeus was Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. He retired in July 2011 to become the Director of the CIA.

Category: Featured Articles, Spring 2011

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