Being a great leader requires more than getting a promotion. Every great leader has a unique mix of skills – wisdom, courage, humility, analysis, empathy, among others. As a manager, you can cultivate and improve yourself as a leader. No matter what field you’re in, what role you have, or what your team needs from you, some principles of exceptional leadership are consistent across time and disciplines.
In 2009, the author William Deresiewicz delivered an address to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point on the topic of leadership. Specifically, he focused on what differentiates great leaders from the rest, and how leaders can learn to buck convention and groupthink and to trust the wisdom of their minds and hearts. The speech has become a classic among those who aspire to the timeless attributes of powerful, holistic leadership.
Deresiewicz’s ideas can help you accomplish your goals, help your team surpass its own expectations, hone your perspective, and make the most of your innate leadership ability in any situation regardless of team size and structure.
To focus means to set aside time for difficult challenges and deep work. It requires eliminating distractions, honing in on what matters, and tackling your biggest challenges head-on. It means learning to apply mindfulness not just as a practice of self-improvement, but as a way of approaching all your important tasks and responsibilities.
Deresiewicz says, “it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas… can only be found within – without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.”
Learn To Be Alone
Indeed, the central topic of Deresiewicz’s address is the importance of solitude. The only way to lead others is to get comfortable with being alone.
“I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things,” he says. “But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. 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.”
Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or something in between, it is essential that you take time alone with your thoughts and feelings to better know yourself and build trust in your own counsel. This will give you the true bedrock confidence that will let your team relax and know you know what you’re doing. Whatever responsibilities you have as a manager and a leader, perhaps the greatest is to take the time and space you need for yourself.
Solitude, according to Deresiewicz, “can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counter-intuitive: friendship. Of course, friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that ‘the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.'”
As a leader, you must build a network of peers, mentors, and friends who want the best for you, who can see opportunities for you that you can’t, and who can engage with you in infinite games and deep, honest, fearless conversation. These are the relationships that most matter.
We’re All Creatives Now
Technology is changing the structures of business and society at a dizzying pace. We can no longer rely on the safety of convention. Managers and leaders must embrace the necessary skills and mindsets of creativity. We must innovate, improvise, think differently, and think positively.
The essence of creativity is courage. It’s not just for capital-C Creatives anymore. As a leader, you must be free to explore, have the intellectual honesty to critique your own ideas, and have the guts to defend them. That’s the sort of bold, compassionate leadership today’s team needs and wants.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the 541st issue of the a.blog.