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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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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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