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Monday, February 20, 2012

Want To Be A Leader? ‘Learn To Be Alone With Your Thoughts’

What makes a great leader? Solitude, says William Deresiewicz.

Speaking to a plebe class at West Point, he said that without solitude, it’s hard to arrive at thoughts that are your own, and hard to develop the moral compass and moral courage necessary to act on those thoughts.

Those are exactly the qualities our leading institutions are failing to cultivate in their students, Deresiewicz told Here and Now‘s Robin Young, and the result is that the U.S. is producing followers rather than leaders.

Deresiewicz’s West Point lecture went viral, with people from every walk of life, business, sports, the arts, the military, responding to it.

“There’s a tremendous hunger among young people today to be given permission to think for themselves — not just to jump through hoops, which is how I think we’re training them, whether we do this intentionally or not to behave,” he said.

Because our society rewards bureaucratic conformity, Deresiewicz argues, “You need a lot of inner strength to say, ‘I’m not going to behave the way everyone wants me to behave, and I don’t think we’re doing a good job developing that in people.’”

William Deresiewicz started noticing these themes while teaching Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a story, he says, that has a lot to say about the nature of leadership and the effect of large bureaucracies.

This segment originally aired last year, and we heard a lot of feedback from listeners.

A listener identifying as “Guest” writes:

When I asked for guidance for moving up in the company I work for, my boss told me that it was “really just about who likes you” and not what your work ethic, intelligence or accomplishments are.  People here don’t like anyone with original thought or strong work ethic.  Leadership here needs to hear (really hear) that speech.

Mark in Cambridge writes:

Isn’t this critique just as valid when applied to Professor Deresiewicz’s own profession of academe as well? Surely it is not the case that the tenure system ends up yielding the best teachers, or even the most honorable scholars.

What do you think makes a great leader? Tell us in the comments section or on Facebook or Twitter.


  • William Deresiewicz, former Yale professor author of “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter.”

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  • Anonymous

    Oh, it’s great, these theories, and theorists of leadership. You have the consensus that so-and-so is a great leader, and you just scratch your head wondering what happened to greatness, and how can everybody be so wrong. Then some bold maverick comes along who has some bold new idea on the subject, and you say, “Oh, thank you for saving us from the consensus!” Only then you learn who HE thinks is a great leader – David Petraeus – a name that means spin and opportunism and deception to any reasonable person.  People have to figure this out – nobody has a playbook, everybody just makes this stuff up as they go along, and the ones that get ahead are generally the biggest cheaters.  Don’t follow leaders, follow youself.  You are your own the ultimate guru.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Werner/100000378388424 Paul Werner

      Well, I guess I am just unreasonable.  Care to elaborate on where GEN Petraeus was engendering spin, opportunism and deception?

      Could it be:

      “The Washington Post’s Fact Checker stated that the General’s report of “sharply declining Iraqi casualty rates is certainly open to analysis, debate, and challenge” but that “MoveOn.org does not provide adequate factual support for its larger assertion that Petraeus is ‘constantly at war with the facts’ and is ‘cooking the books’ for the White House”.[7]”

      from Wikipedia entry on “MoveOn.org ad controversy”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DPKS3HUGQBPILPIU7IVZSHGXLI Robert_N

    I’d agree that solitude and reflection are the key to independent thought, but at what point does avoiding social media/interaction harm your understanding of other peoples’ thinking and conclusions? To have a solid, well-rounded basis for leadership, don’t you have to understand the situation to the fullest, including how others perceive it? Independence and leadership don’t necessarily = smart policy, and being alone with just one’s own potentially flawed thought process might not always be best. Sometimes the consensus position, when based on a breadth of available information, is the best one. But you have to weigh the facts and gauge the situation from all angles, without being swayed by popular or preconceived notions. To me, THAT is independent thought, and it’s rare these days. one thing that might help: Require students to take a class on critical thinking.

  • Dadamercer

    A great leader is one who can find solutions to unstructured problems. 

  • Jbrode

    So this lecture went “viral” on YouTube?  I searched: solitude + leadership + deresiewicz + west point in every combination I could think of, could I find the lecture????? No.  What am I doing wrong?? 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Werner/100000378388424 Paul Werner

      I’m just guessing here, but maybe the original speech posted on Youtube was copyrighted and posted without permission.  As such, it would have been removed by Youtube.  This speech was given over two years ago.

  • Pamela

    Thank you William Deresiewiez for speaking the truth.  I hope individuals will sit or stand or move quietly long enough to hear the deep wisdom of that truth for his or her self.  Solitude with oneself is the path to wisdom and wisdom paired with integrity and courage is what a true leader requires most.  Thank you from one who is old enough to know the truth of your words.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate this wonderful post! just like I wish I would have learned more about double mattress . It would have made my life so much more enjoyable! http://www.mattressland.co.uk

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