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Lead Yourself First

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“Our mission is to plant ourselves at…a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be…” – Victoria Safford

Collective consciousness, joint cognition, and communities of practice are just a few examples of advances in organizational theory that enhance how teams of all sizes operate today. We might look at these ideas as collective intelligence. “Collecting” intelligence across domains is undoubtedly useful and exciting. However, there’s only one place to crystalize your view of the world, to become aware of your biases, to manage your excess emotions, and embed your knowledge. In solitude. Alone.

Last year, my friend, Mike Erwin, CEO of the Positivity Project, and Founder of Team RWB, co-wrote the book Lead Yourself First, Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. I’ve read it twice and have had it on my list of books to review and share. To me, Lead Yourself First is more a reflection on perspective than a set of recommendations. It’s one of the things I love about the book. It’s not a step-by-step guide. That type of approach would be in direct contradiction to the point of the book. You have to lead yourself first – in your way! However, Mike does offer two broad recommendations in leading yourself first.

  1. Systematically build pockets of solitude into your life
  2. Recognize unexpected opportunities for solitude and seize them

On January 7th of this year, the Wall Street Journal published an article about how children and iphones “are a toxic pair.” The ubiquity of the smartphone, and its overuse, is harmful to younger people. And older people. But the data shows there’s more harm to children. It’s fairly obvious that smartphone users (nearly all of us) have an addiction. We have a nearly irresistible desire to use our phones as a portal to consume information, and establish connection. But this connection and consumption comes at a steep cost to our solitude. It’s the same with the global news cycle. If we choose to do so, we can follow “breaking” news stories 24 hours/day, 7 days per week. The problem is that when we’re consuming we’re not thinking, creating, or synthesizing. We’re forfeiting our intellectual power to someone else. We’ve allowed someone else to hijack and direct our attention. We’ve literally handed our solitude – our minds – to someone else.

William Deresiewicz, in his 2009 lecture to the plebe class at West Point, reminds us that “true leadership is being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions.“ And “Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.” It’s that straightforward. Not simple. Not easy. Straightforward.

So what do we learn in Lead Yourself First? The authors suggest we embrace solitude, defined as that subjective state of mind, isolated from external input, other minds, and other ideas where we work through a problem on our own. The authors look at solitude very simply. Through the lens of what it provides if done well and consistently:

  • clarity,
  • creativity,
  • emotional balance
  • moral courage

The first recommendation we get is to renew our relationship with discipline. Not systematic, mindless discipline but the habit of creating space to crystalize and synthesize your perspective. The authors begin at the place from which creativity emerges – clarity.

The authors provide a beautifully nuanced account of the master purpose behind analytic clarity – removing all ambiguity and isolating the “key variable upon which the leader’s decision depends.” It’s Eisenhower’s son who informs us that “throughout his life my father had put many thoughts on paper, partly for the information of others but even more to clarify thoughts in his own mind.” When asked by Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, what he should do about the Philippines, and the war in the Pacific, Eisenhower retreated to a “vacant office” for twenty minutes (:20 minutes!) and returned with an answer that would help win the war. How did he formulate his answer in :20 minutes? Not from the input of overeager staffers. Not from emails or operational plans long obsolete. From “a curious echo from long ago” which came to his aid. He solidified his thoughts from a collection of experiences and from memories if his mentor from World War I. He relied on solitude in which to synthesize his unique collection of experiences and to formulate clarity of thought.

“The first step on the road to experiencing true awareness is the cessation of noise from within.” — Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope

VADM James B. Stockdale – in his 1981 speech at John Carroll University – reiterates the inspiration in creative geniuses such as “Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn.” He reminds us that their clarity of thought, emotional balance, and courage emerged not just due to the prison environment itself but was “obtained through reflection” and “uninterrupted thought, time to reorder their lives while languishing.” They thought deeply and independently about their own ideas. Thus, produced literary masterpieces from the mere landscape of their minds. While imprisoned in extreme solitude, they rescued clarity from the jaws of the everyday cacophony of mind.

In Lead Yourself First, the authors reinforce that creative genius – the fusion of mind and soul, the alloy of conviction – comes not from emails, incessant texts, and Twitter, but from “serious thinking, inspired thinking.” They encourage the kind of thinking it takes to correctly form an opinion (as Charlie Munger would suggest). The kind of thinking it takes to really know a thing rather than just the name of a thing (as Richard Feynman would reinforce).

“If clarity serves to identify which of the available options will be most effective for a leader, creativity serves to develop a possibility the leader was not aware of before.” It’s with this that the authors take us into creativity. A real leader – not a technocrat – is often a maverick and an entrepreneur. As Ray Dalio describes in his book Principles, to be a successful entrepreneur you essentially have to “bet against the consensus, and win.” You have to tap into your creative energy – ideas that are both novel and useful – “collisions of information” that synchronize with your values and principles (determined in solitude and through deep thinking). You can certainly avoid betting against the consensus. You can ride the wave of the bureaucracy. Follow the system. But you’ll be managing, not leading. There’s a certainly an acceptable place for managing. However, leading is more than maintaining the status quo. If you subscribe to the theory that the world in which we live is accelerating, and thus becoming more complex, then maintaining status quo means becoming obsolete.

It’s here we meet Joey Reiman of BrightHouse, the world’s first “ideation company” and whose primary value is “thoughtfulness.” As an example they use a four to sixteen week workflow with their clients in a “deep incubation” cycle. BrightHouse believes there is “nothing more important in a leader’s arsenal than solitude. That’s where we find revelation.” And revelations are the collision of information, intuition, and your highest values. It’s creative thinking that leads us to see the absence of patterns that we should see but aren’t there – the definition of expert thinking, (as proposed by Gary Klein in Sources of Power). It’s a hallmark of creativity to reject conventional norms when they outpace their purpose.

No leader in my experience rejected conventional norms quite like retired U.S. Marine Corps General, and current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. I briefly met Gen. Mattis at a small outpost in the middle of Iraq in 2003 when I was a SEAL Platoon Commander and won’t ever forget it. Here was a general officer strolling around the outpost with common demeanor but uncommon intensity. When Sherman wrote of Ulysses S. Grant that Grant “remembered the most minute details and watched every point,” Sherman could have been writing about James Mattis in command of the 1st Marine Division in 2003.

In Lead Yourself First, General Mattis says “the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the information age…it’s a lack of reflection.” And that lack of reflection causes reactionary (rather than respondent) behavior. Without intentional time spent in reflection we lose our emotional balance. It was Doris Kearns Goodwin, reflecting on her research for Team of Rivals, who tells the authors that President Lincoln’s “ability to retain his emotional balance was rooted in an acute self awareness and an enormous capacity to dispel anxiety in constructive ways.” Both President Lincoln and General Dwight D. Eisenhower were notorious for writing letters they never sent. The letters, no doubt written in solitude, served as outlets to “give passage to great emotions” and allow for one to recover perspective.

Recovering perspective? Perspective? Just a word if we don’t know ours. But where to find it? In the final section of the book, it’s perspective that is the basis for moral courage. What is our “attitude toward” or our “way of regarding something?” Do we take the time and have a process for formulating a “true understanding of the relative importance of things?” In 1840, poet Edgar Allen Poe warned that the “mad energy” of man came from refusing to “be alone.” To Poe, it was “such a great misfortune” that someone would lose the capacity to be alone with oneself thus surrendering one’s singularity to mind-numbing conformity. And thus, risking your own perspective in becoming that of the masses instead of truly our own perspective.

In Lead Yourself First, we get a powerful recommendation in developing our moral courage, and where we stand on things: work on “personal leadership as well as organizational leadership.” Do we really know what we believe? Do you really know what your first principles are?

We get unique perspectives from Doug Conant, former CEO of the Campbell’s Soup Company, Winston Churchill, MLK, and Pope John Paul II. In 1979, it was Pope Jon Paul II who said “The real danger to both sides – the Church and the other side…is the man…who wants only to fit, to float in conformity…” I’ve often been outspoken about good followership, teaming, and stewardship as the path to great leadership. In Lead Yourself First, you’ll get a similar viewpoint that a leader must never be above her followers, but rather “among them.”

What are we to do then? What do the authors recommend? They recommend ten (10) things to keep in mind:

    1. Reset expectations – expressly. Set expectation and give permission to capture solitude in your day and operating rhythm. And be purposeful about it.
    2. Find physical space for solitude.
    3. Get outside. For breaks or to reset, or for meetings, or whatever. Get outside during the day!
    4. Percolate on your “elephants” (the one or two primary things you must do) before the you start the day. Or as your routine in starting your day.
    5. Prepare yourself emotionally. Unplugging from the crown can be intimidating if you’re not familiar with sitting in silence with yourself.
    6. Extroverts will be okay. Everyone needs time to think.
    7. Don’t worry about missing out.
    8. Embrace hard thinking. Start simple and small but begin to work on hard problems – alone.
    9. Identify your first principles and stay connected to them.
    10. Establish your higher purpose for your leadership style, and share it with your people.
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  1. Jon Brianas
    March 19, 2018 at 3:09 am — Reply

    One of my favorite parts: “to be a successful entrepreneur you essentially have to “bet against the consensus, and win.” You have to tap into your creative energy – ideas that are both novel and useful – “collisions of information” that synchronize with your values and principles (determined in solitude and through deep thinking)”

  2. Ann Pendleton-Jullian
    March 25, 2018 at 5:09 pm — Reply

    As always, full of things to think about . . . one thing I have always spoken about is the need to put yourself in a space of boredom. This is a little different than a space for reflection. I remember that when I was bored as a child, I had to find ways to fill in the gap. It is from that space that I started ‘projects’ whether making things or paths of inquiry about topics – paths in which interrogation (the higher order sibling of research) and imagination were conversant partners. Being bored is a necessity – putting yourself into a space of boredom so that nothing finds something. I worry that the need to be continually entertained is the tsunami swamping the capacity to be generative. WHICH is necessary for a healthy mind and emotional state and making novel things in the world.

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