Solitude and Reflection
Two essential aspects of leadership that are easy to miss (or skip)
“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action.” — Peter Drucker
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When’s the last time you were alone with your thoughts? No, truly alone.
I’ll give you a moment to think about that.
Before you say anything, yes, I recognize the irony of asking you to reflect when I’m here, annoying you in your inbox.
The pace that we’re all on can seem frenetic, even on the best days. From a perpetually clogged inbox that can dictate our every action, to calendars that are filled with so many meetings we have scant time to do any actual work, the rigors of work life take a toll.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch the multiple updates we get from Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, Clubhouse, Instagram, text messages…I could go on.
It’s something of an epidemic, beyond the impact we’ve been feeling of the pandemic: interruptions and a seemingly nonstop online presence are eroding our ability to focus, reflect and be comfortable spending time with our inner selves.
Kahlil Gibran perfectly intones why our busyness and loquaciousness may be a blockade to reflection in The Prophet:
You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, your thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a case of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.
There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
We seem to be always running to one thing or another—and in some cases, running from ourselves.
“It isn’t only famous movie stars who want to be alone. Whenever I hear someone speak of privacy, I find myself thinking once again how real and deep the need for such times is for human beings…at all ages.” — Fred Rogers
Improving yourself is hard work. It requires a sometimes uncomfortable level of reflection that comes with meditation or quiet time. But being alone with yourself and reflecting is an essential activity for leaders.
Recent research has shown that our social biome—the mix of interactions that we have, from the closeness we feel with a best friend to casual conversations we have online—has one vital component: alone time.
But plain old alone time won’t cut it. It needs to be intentional. And research shows that reflection boosts productivity.1
And yet, many leaders have difficulty with this concept. Why? The A-type personalities that typically rise to the top always seem to have their plates spinning: meetings, calls, decisions, travel, exercise, more, more, more. To pause would mean those plates might fall.
Here’s another possibility: they might not know where to begin. Reflection is a personal process. We each come to it in our own way. Some of us might meditate. Others might go for a run. Still others might take up an activity like gardening, fishing, or writing.
During this time, some topics you might consider spending time on include: What did you do in the last week to help colleagues achieve their goals? What did you do that stood in their way? What have you avoided in the last week that should have had your attention?
Don’t leave this to chance. Schedule some time in your calendar, whether it’s daily or weekly. Treat it as sacrosanct and as urgent as everything else on your schedule.
And when you do reflect, be serious about it. Turn off your phone or leave it in the other room. Create a sense of calm and stillness. Talk through some of the issues with yourself, being open to taking a position that’s the opposite of what you might normally think.
The results won’t be immediately apparent. Like any kind of exercise you do, it builds over time. It also means you might start out doing shorter sets of reflection as you build up.
“Solitude is different from loneliness, and it doesn't have to be a lonely kind of thing.” — Fred Rogers
Exactly 88 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt began a series of reflections that changed not only his presidency, but the forever altered concept of a president of the United States speaking directly with the American people.
On March 12, 1933, FDR gave the first of his 30 fireside chats, about the Emergency Banking Act. It happened at a critical time in the nation’s history, as the public was on the verge of a panic in the throes of the Great Depression. It was intimate: no matter how many people in a household gathered around a radio, the president was speaking to you.
It showed a sense of vulnerability, as well: that Roosevelt wished to put himself out there and didn’t leave it to newspapermen to interpret his words. He was frank and honest, and created a sense of unity out of solitude, letting the public know “It is your problem no less than it is mine…Together we cannot fail.”
Radio in those days, just as podcasting does today, created a sense of familiarity. Of togetherness. Of trust. Qualities that are crucial to any leader who hopes to build a relationship with those she leads.
I’ve begun releasing the public newsletter in an audio format. Let me know what you think.
With more intimacy than a speech in front of thousands, with more personality than an email that lays flat on a screen, an audio interaction puts a voice directly into your head, with all of the warmth, humor, and quirks that it brings.
Between the need for others (discussed in the previous newsletter) and the need to be alone, we find a nexus of understanding. Understanding our own needs and motivations, which is a prerequisite if we wish to understand the needs and motivations of others.
And that requires being comfortable being alone and using the time to reflect.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” — John Hughes, 1986
Alone Time is Healthy (Forge)
Brave acquired search engine Tailcat to offer the first private alternative to Google Search and Google Chrome on both mobile and desktop. (Brave)
PwC chairman Tim Ryan is committed to more diversity and inclusion. When he looked at the teams inside PwC that were servicing top clients six years ago, they were done by white men. So, he made the decision that they were going to change that. As a result, there are people who just feel like they got cheated. His response is to ask them to reflect on it:
“I’m asking you to respect what we are trying to do. I’m asking you to respect our colleagues. I’m asking you to have compassion. And if you don’t agree, that’s OK. You don’t have to agree with me. But I do need you to live our values.” (The New York Times)
“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.” — William Wordsworth, 1802
A hard fact of leadership: if you want others to follow, you need to be comfortable being alone with your thoughts. (The American Scholar)
Work friendships are important to happiness. What happens when you can’t make them? Why It’s So Lonely at the Top (The Atlantic)
The best leaders aren’t afraid to ask for help. Needing help and asking for it is one of the most human things. (HBR)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“What shall I say…when I see nothing but solitude?” — Stephen Parmenius, 1583
🎧 The Walk with Fr. Roderick is a podcast about health, fitness, weight loss, physical and spiritual well-being. Discussions and reflections to help you focus on you as he rambles the countryside.
📚 Throughout history, leaders have used solitude as a matter of course. Martin Luther King found moral courage while sitting alone at his kitchen table one night during the Montgomery bus boycott. Jane Goodall used her intuition in the jungles of central Africa while learning how to approach chimps. Solitude is a state of mind, a space where you can focus on your own thoughts without distraction, with a power to bring mind and soul together in clear-eyed conviction. To find solitude today, a leader must make a conscious effort. Lead Yourself First explains why the effort is worthwhile and how to make it.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.