Editor's Choice

Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude

June 16, 2017


Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin employ exquisite storytelling to teach us the importance for leaders to carve out some time for solitude.

Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin, Bloomsbury, 240 pages, Hardcover, June 2017, ISBN 9781632866318

Leadership is hard, and can often feel lonely. It requires personal conviction, building consensus, defying convention, bucking bureaucracy, and usually bearing the displeasure of some in the service of the greater whole. You’ll need to cultivate an ability to stay grounded in crisis, to be in the moment with others as you converse and consider a way forward, to have presence, and presence of mind. And according to a new book by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin, it requires solitude:


Solitude yields to the clarity to know when the easy path is the wrong one. And solitude, through its fusion of mind and soul, produces within the leader the stronger alloy of conviction, which in turn braces her with the moral courage not to conform, and to bear the consequences that result.


Solitude, as defined by the authors, isn’t necessarily retreating into nature to contemplate —though it could be. “It is,” they write, “simply, a subjective state of mind, in which the mind, isolated from input from other minds, works through a problem on its own.”

Lead Yourself First is a series of stories of leaders and doers: entrepreneurs at work, mountain climbers during an ascent, generals at war, religious leaders working in world, parents raising their children. You’ll go deep with Eisenhower during his World War II command, Martin Luther King Jr. as a young, 25-year-old taking on the mantle of leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Jane Goodall sitting quiet and still at the place she named the Peak, observing Chimpanzees.

The methods used for solitude and clarity differ, from meditation and running, to writing and quiet contemplation, but the result is the same: some time free from distraction and the direct input of others to let ideas synthesize and connect, to let your inner voice guide you and give you conviction, to connect to something both in yourself, and something greater than yourself. It can provide analytical clarity, intuition, creativity, emotional balance, acceptance, catharsis, magnanimity, and moral courage. There is a chapter dedicated to each of those traits in Lead Yourself First, built around intimate portraits of leaders. 

But solitude is under siege today. Constant connectivity and collaboration is widely viewed as the ideal in the workplace these days. New networking technologies, project management and messaging tools, are being introduced into our organizations at a pace that makes them hard to even learn, let alone manage. Those who seek time to themselves are looked at askance, as if they’re not team-players, antisocial, wrong. But, “At some point the inputs become intrusions,” says Nate Fick, a former Marine Recon officer that now runs a company specializing in cyber-security. And he makes it clear that it’s not due to new technologies—even if they have exasperated the problem—and the solution can sometimes be simple:


“I used to have this phone that had a blinking light on it in my office at home. I would get so frustrated to that light blinking at me whenever I had a message on there. So I threw it out and bought a 1970s rotary phone. No voicemail, no flashing light on there. It’s been a marked improvement.”


Kethledge and Erwin mostly avoid giving direct advice or personal lessons. But, in perhaps the briefest chapter—the final one on “Embracing Solitude”—the authors do offer some practical and easily actionable ways to carve out some solitude for yourself, and how to use it. Otherwise, the book is story-driven, and the authors let the leaders they’re profiling provide the example and speak for themselves.

Now Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for example, tells us:


“An effective leader is the person who can maintain their balance and reflect, when a lot of people around them are reacting. […] If I were to sum up the single greatest problem of senior leadership in the information age, it’s a lack of reflection.”


There is no word as to if he has offered that advice to his current boss.

But the very best thing about the book is the writing. The stories carry you away so easily and so often that you’ll forget the central premise of the book for a while. You’ll be whisked off to the dessert to learn about T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and the Arab Revolt he helped bring to life. You’ll get immersed in how Lawrence devised the strategy for the insurgency against the Turks, and the characters and events along the way. It’s not until the authors circle back at the end and write “Lawrence’s ‘sick-bed ruminations’ had proved a success” that you remember that you’re learning about leadership and the role of solitude in it.

If I could pick one quote to sum up the message of the book best, it would be this:


A leader who silences the din not only around her mind but inside it can then hear the delicate voice of intuition, which may have already made connections that her conscious mind has not. And a leader who is aware of his weaknesses can guard against them.


“A critical element of effective leadership,” Bill George—author of True North—tells them, “is not to let the immediate take precedence over the important.” That has never been easy, but in a world where work never seems to end, devices that are designed to be addictive always on, and a twenty-four hour news cycle, it is becoming ever harder:


Before the information age—which one could also call the input age—leaders naturally found solitude anytime they were physically alone, or when walking from one place to another, or while standing in line. Like a great wave that saturates everything in its path, however, handheld devices that deliver immeasurable quantities of information and entertainment now have virtually everyone instead staring down at their phones.


However addictive these devices are, Kethledge and Erwin remind us that we can choose to put them down and make space for solitude in our lives. Leaders, they insist, have an obligation to do so. You could begin by picking up a copy of Lead Yourself First. I think it will compel you to eventually put even the book itself down to seek solitude.

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