Earlier this week, my father sent me a link to an article in The American Scholar. It is the text of a speech given by William Deresiewicz to West Point Cadets entitled "Solitude and Leadership" It. has been nominated as one of the top 100 important articles of the year. You can find the link here:
As I read it, I knew I had seen it before but couldn't quite put my finger on when or where. This morning, I went back and looked through my previous postings and found it. It is post #68, "Alone with Yourself" written almost a year ago. You can find the link to that post below:
As I re-read both the article and #68, what occurred to me was how far my journey has really taken me. It truly has been worth the time.
Last weeks post "Failure and Redemption" was the hardest one I have ever written. It was both incredibly painful to finally be able to see my failings clearly, and incredibly liberating to finally be able to put that down and no longer feel the crushing weight of it on my shoulders all the time. I have certainly been surprised by many of the responses I've gotten throughout the week. People have thanked me for taking this journey, or asked me to lunch to further talk and clarify my thoughts, or said "I'm glad." No one has come out and attacked me or thrown anything in my face or written a nasty email or anything like that. Most folks have been happy for me. I am grateful for everyone's support. Last week as I was writing it, I told a friend of mine that I was frightened, terrified of the outcome once I posted it. She asked me a simple question. "What's the worst that can happen?" I was terrified that I would wake up the next day to an inbox full of hatred and vitriol and attack. None of that happened. Another unfounded fear formed by an irrational thought process that had been paralyzing me for so long. Another layer stripped away.
Back to the article....
In post #68, I wrote about Deresiewicz's addressing things like bureaucracies, and the nature of military service and how we live in a 21st century world. I also quoted at length about a scandal he mentioned that was going to make a young leader have to take a stand on one side of an issue or another. All very much aimed at the institution and the structure of the Army. All railing against the corporate mindset that permeates so much of our lives.
Here is what struck me today:
"That is the first half of the lecture: the idea that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn to think?"
"Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality."
Deresiewicz goes on to say that Facebooking and Tweeting and sending one-line messages and status updates are all things that actually interfere with learning, and thinking, and introspection and the development of a true understanding of who you are. They interfere with the development of your own narrative:
"Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube."
But here's the point of today's post. Introspection does not have to be done in isolation. In fact, the opposite is true. Introspection is probably best done with someone else. Not 400 people that you label a 'Friend' on Facebook, but one someone else, maybe two, who meet a very special criteria:
"Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities."
I cannot tell you how important, how personally impactful that quote was to me. I cannot explain the depth of its meaning to you. Except to say this. I don't get to last weeks post without finding that person. I don't get to a more clear understanding of who I truly am without finding that person. I don't get the chance to study my soul without fear of judgement without that person. I don't begin finding my narrative without that person. I don't get to put down a lot of my fears without someone I can really talk to. Someone I can walk down a dirt road with slowly. Someone who accepts me as I am, but challenges me to be better. Someone who makes me think, and asks me troubling questions, and pushes me to understand connections I have not seen before. Do you have someone like that in your life? It is not a small or inconsequential thing believe me. I spent years running around building a perfect model of who and what I thought my world required. I suspect that many others do too. Finding someone who would walk down the dirt roads with me has undone so much of that and led me to a much clearer understanding of myself. An understanding that will allow me to face crucible moments head on. An understanding that will ultimately make me a stronger person and a better leader. A more complete soul with an authentic narrative born of the deep and critical excavation of yourself that can only be done with someone you trust implicitly.
If you want to lead anything, a club, a platoon, an office, anything, at some point you will have to make your own choices, and your own decisions irrespective of anyone or anything else. You will have to develop your own narrative and know what is true for you. You will have to have taken stock of your values and your priorities. You will have to have looked in the mirror and studied the fears and failings and warts and scars. You will have to have been willing to determine where you stand. If you haven't done those things, in solitude and with introspection and determination, then you cannot be an authentic leader. You can only be a character in a play. I know that now. Much of that journey you may be able to take by yourself, although very few can actually do it. For most of us, it will take someone else who can show us our truer selves. Finding that person may be the most critical leader development decision you ever make.
Leadership can be a lonely business and many of us get frightened by the fear of failure and judgment or wrapped up in the trappings and status. Both have had equal impact on my life and how I lead. If I could offer any of you who read this one piece of advice today, it would be this: Go find that person who you can share the quiet, the troubling, the confusing and the darker places of your soul with. Someone who will help you develop your own true narrative. Take the time to think deeply. To inspect your world. To become someone who can stand alone when it's required. When the crucible moments happen, that person will be the one who guides you through it.
Thank you, KM. You have allowed me the opportunity to heal, learn and grow. My narrative is becoming my own. I am grateful for your taking the time to help me see it. I am grateful beyond measure for your friendship.
A year ago, I was busy railing against all of the things that I thought were wrong about how we teach leader development in the Army. Finding anything to buttress an argument that supported my vision of how it should be done. A year later the same article I used then has come full circle. The same source, but seen from a completely different perspective. The solitude has been worth it. I have been walking down dirt roads for awhile. I'm just glad now that I have someone to accompany me on my travels.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.