Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Solitude and Leadership



Last week, when I wrote about isolation, the isolation of a leader from the group that is, I didn’t make emphasis enough that there is another component called Solitude. Isolation and Solitude are not the same:

Isolation means being without relation to other people or things. Being separated, cut off in other words. 

Solitude is the state or situation of being alone. 

Leadership requires these times of solitude. Solitude, being yourself, finding yourself, concentrating, focusing, thinking profoundly your own thoughts for yourself. There is so much noise around us in our ever faster paced world, hence it is even more necessary to spend time alone... being in solitude ... to get the clarity required, gaining a deeper understanding when being in a leadership position. It also means that a leader needs to immerse oneself into many different fields, which requires studying thoroughly the different matters. In a way it’s like doing research, which then prepares you for the complex and difficult situations to come ... and come they will. 

However, a leader should also be in close contact with his group. The combined knowledge of the group is a valuable source of information. Taking into consideration the different perspectives of his group members enhances and broadens the view of the situation at hand. I have talked about that. 

During my own research I came across a great essay, presentation actually, by William Deresiewicz given at West Point Academy in October 2009. He eloquently describes in detail what I am talking about here. I would like to encourage you to take your time and read this essay, it’s definitely worth your time:


Some excerpts:
  • Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelistsor 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.

  • 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 fulfill 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.

  • 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.

  • “Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.” Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.

  • Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.


The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On Isolation



Isolation in Leadership is likely the most dangerous thing a leader can possibly do. Often, people believe that being separated from the group they lead is a sign of power. It couldn’t be further from the truth: isolation is the opposite of power and is a sign of weakness and lack of leadership. Essentially, doing that cuts you off from your most important source: The combined experience, the special knowledge of the group ... the information / data you need and which is the basis for your leadership. 

Nowadays our world has become so fast paced that leadership in isolation cannot and will not work. Period. No one will actually follow you, because leadership is never about you, but always about them. When you are truly the first amongst equals people will voluntarily, naturally choose to follow you. Leadership has its roots in the group, gets its strength and power from the group and through the group. 

The other extreme, the opposite of isolation, is mingling too much, either trying to please all people in the group, or not keeping enough of a distance to be able to see the entire picture. Once the group knows and understands the purpose of the mission by all means let them think and work. Leading the group by trusting them and their expertise, leading through temporary absence making them feel the trust you have, makes you and your leadership all the more valuable, desirable, and appreciated. In other words you show respect, the respect for each member of the group, respect for the entire group and what they are truly capable of

As Lao Tzu so eloquently said: A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

On Power




Sooner or later when Leadership is the topic the notion “Power” comes up. And indeed, as a leader you do have quite some power. There are many different definitions of power, and we all know Macchiavelli’s thoughts in “The Prince”. What is then the definition of power? One can condense it down to the essence: The ability of getting things done.

Often, leadership is misinterpreted as “having authority over others”, and power is understood as “commanding and forcing”. To drive this point home the military is used as an example. Yet, that’s not how the modern military works, it only appears to be that way for people not familiar with it.

Asymmetric challenges are meanwhile not only common for the military, this is the way our world is transforming into. Nowadays a small startup somewhere on the planet can challenge and put out of business a large corporation. Disruption and creative destruction are becoming the norm, made possible by technology. How about that kind of power?

Powerful Leadership today is for instance the ability-

  • to connecting on a deep level with people from all over the world, people with diverse cultural backgrounds, diverse education …

  • to listening and gaining a thorough understanding of the different points of view of people and the facts presented.

  • to integrating their perspectives into yours, thus broadening and deepening your worldview, hence enabling you to “see” what was hidden before.

  • to leading as the first amongst equals, getting people to voluntarily cooperating with you and choosing freely being led by you, acknowledging you as having the experience, the skills, the intelligence to lead them.

The times of “leading” a group of subordinates are gone. More often than not leadership means leading equals and that doesn’t work by force. In a way it reminds me personally of my experience as a project leader for large scale projects. None of the players were direct reports or subordinates. Quite the opposite, some of them had even a much higher rank than I had, yet I was in charge of the project and reported to the corporate board. They came from different parts of the world, different factories, different suppliers. That means you can only be successful when they choose to follow you … choose to be led by you. It has a lot to do with integrity, honesty, trustworthiness and the example you give.

Leaders lead. They don’t follow opinions. This statement made by Stanley McChrystal describes it exactly as it is. In order to do so they listen, study, know and understand the facts. They also understand the degree of uncertainty and the impact that might have in any given situation. They are able to do that because they understand, respect, and accept their group as equals and specialists of their own right. That is where the true power of leadership is coming from. That is what gives you leverage as a leader.

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