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What Emerson, Captain Willard, and William Deresiewicz Say about Leadership

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“he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions”
– Emerson

In October 2009, the Yale English professor, author, and literary critic William Deresiewicz delivered a speech to the plebe class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The speech is titled Solitude and Leadership. I first read the speech in 2011 but had not thought about it much recently. However, upon reading it again I thought I’d share a summary of the speech and include some of my notes.

In the speech, Mr. Deresiewicz makes a compelling case that solitude is the essence of leadership. Coming from Yale, he observes that elite institutions largely view themselves as leadership institutions where future diplomats, business leaders, and generals are trained. But he doesn’t see it that way. He disagrees that energy, accomplishment, smarts, and ambition (traits he presumably observed in most of his students) are the ingredients of leadership.

In the past, I’ve written about functional excellence and tactical expertise getting an overly heavy concentration in athletics, business, and the military. In many organizations people continue to get promoted to greater responsibility simply because they are tactically proficient in one thing, or a few key areas. However, that tactical expertise, although absolutely necessary, has almost nothing to do with leadership. Functional skill doesn’t necessarily translate directly to leading.

Mr. Deresiewicz states that what he actually saw at Yale were not leaders in training but “world-class hoop jumpers” who were “excellent sheep” and technocrats. He expands the indictment by saying that “what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders” is they educate “people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about.”

He transitions by unpacking a theme in the book the Heart of Darkness (or movie Apocalypse Now). Captain Willard (Martin Sheen for the movie watchers and Marlow for the readers), arrives at Central Station and describes the boss there as “commonplace…inspiring neither love nor fear, nor even respect.” The boss at Central Station has his job because “he could keep the routine going” and keeps his job because he knows how to be an excellent sheep. Mr. Deresiewicz is dissecting a bureaucracy, which has roots in the French word for “office” or “desk” and Greek word “-kratia” which means “power.” Personally, the word office-power or desk-power makes me want to throw up. Unfortunately, I think we all know someone, somewhere who has exactly that power because they were ambitious and smart and could keep things going.

Mr. Deresiewicz continues by describing why he thinks there is a crisis of leadership in America. He discusses the idea that being really good at answering questions doesn’t make you a capable, independently thinking leader. Asking the right questions does. To quote the West Point professor referenced in the paper, the model of leadership is to “possess a democratic spirit marked by independent judgment, the freedom to measure action and to express disagreement, and crucial responsibility never to tolerate tyranny.”

Mr. Deresiewicz then jumps into discussing being able to work on, deliberate over, and formulate your own ideas. To do so means thinking and thinking means “concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.” He reiterates some interesting points about the dangers of multitasking (or the myth thereof). He discusses his view of the value of concentration and solitude and formulating new ideas and perspectives. Mr. Deresiewicz encourages the reader to get out of the “cacophony” of other people’s thoughts (social media) and into books that survive longer than a Snapchat post. He also encourages the reader to engage in long, uninterrupted discussion with a real friend where our “soul environs itself…that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”

Mr. Deresiewicz articulates a compelling case in developing as leaders.

  1. Look inward for your ideas,
  2. Trust your experience,
  3. Read enduring perspectives, and
  4. Collaborate in uninterrupted conversation with close and trusted teammates.

We develop leadership not from functional excellence and tactical skill (technocratically) but rather from introspection, concentration, thinking, and synthesis.

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  1. March 18, 2018 at 3:40 pm — Reply

    […] 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 […]

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