Lead Yourself First

Reviewed by William Hawkins

Being connected to information and to each other has improved our personal and professional lives. Being lonely sparks our creativity, gives us time to think and, by their absence, reminds us of those we love. However, the pain caused by too much connection and too much loneliness affects us all in every aspect of our lives. Lead Yourself First is a book that that both argues for solitude as the means of balancing connectivity with loneliness in a way that attenuates their benefits and curtails their costs and draws the reader into its practice. Technology, for instance, has improved us as individuals and as a society through increased connectivity, but the benefits have not come without a clear downside.

Authors Kethledge and Erwin chose the way of solitude as the effective tool for leadership that balances connectivity and loneliness. Through a series of case studies of effective leaders’ use of solitude, the authors describe how it increases creativity, clarity, courage and emotional balance. Included in the case studies are stories about civilian, scientific, religious, moral and military leaders.

Included among their studies is the story of Jane Goodall, and how she developed scientific insight and leadership by taking advantage of the solitude afforded to her by a series of illnesses that befell her and her traveling companions. She recovered quicker than her mother and her government minder and could sneak away for periods of time by herself. Alone with nature in those moments, she was able to build trust with the chimpanzees and connect with them in a way that eventually led to her groundbreaking insights.

The authors write about Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King Jr. who both used solitude to steel their moral resolve and develop themselves as religious leaders. The Pope thought and wrote in solitude every day and used that time to think clearly about the ideology underlying the communist regime so that he understood it well enough to critique it effectively. He also used solitude and reflection to maintain his focus on the dignity of every individual person. The combination of the two made him a “formidable opponent” of communism and effective leader in the unified push toward its collapse in eastern Europe. Martin Luther King Jr. turned one lonely, sleepless night into a turning point that cemented his resolve and dedication to leadership of the civil rights movement. God spoke to King that night, he said, and reminded him that he was never alone. Thereafter, King was able to maintain clarity and focus on the “reasons for his actions as a leader…”

The authors use a multitude of mini-case studies to demonstrate the effectiveness of solitude in business leadership. Most of the case studies involve leaders of startups that the authors use to argue for the impossibility of leading a new business without periods of solitude in which their proprietors reflect on the reason for their ventures. The authors give a few examples of solitude in the leadership of established businesses, too. One concerns Joey Reiman, the founder of BrightHouse, an advertising firm built on thoughtfulness and “unconditioned response” where there is no protocol for coming to a decision. Their agents build media strategies for companies upon thinking long and hard about the client’s business, history and goals. Only after a long incubation period does BrightHouse propose an idea that is right for the client. The authors quote Reimann in talking about a solution for a well-known client as saying, “If we had moved at a faster, business pace, we never would have excavated that original brand identify and then generalized it into a new ethos.”

Many of the most in-depth case studies come from the military but their applicability is not limited to those engaged in the leadership of forces deploying complex weaponry. Instead, each of the vignettes explores characteristics relevant to every leader like magnanimity, catharsis, creativity, clarity and acceptance. One of the most in-depth studies is that of General Eisenhower. General Eisenhower was a devotee of solitude throughout his life and lamented the brutal pace of “business” that accompanied his rank as World War II progressed. He wrote his wife and said, “But it’s right that we should be busy – as long as we have time to think.”

Solitude was crucial to Eisenhower for giving him time to think through the potential “futility” of the invasion of Normandy and its long-term benefit for the Allies. In freely chosen solitude, he weighed the costs of canceling the operation because of bad weather and ominous forecasts of casualties with the improvement in the Allies’ chances of victory from proceeding as planned and could narrow the decision to a single criterion and “[turn] the issue ‘over and over'”. Only solitude gave Eisenhower the mental freedom to consider each of his advisors many inputs – without that space, Eisenhower might have been paralyzed by raw data and unable to reach a decision.

Along the way, the authors systematize the meaning of each anecdote. For instance, they argue that the examples demonstrate the power of solitude to synthesize experience which creates the analytical clarity needed for decision making and creativity. Analytical and creative synthesis comes from intuition, but not the fleeting, reflexive intuition that causes us to impulsively react in anger when someone sends a nasty email. This intuition is built from deep, thoughtful reflection on our experience that can only be found in solitude. “The challenge with intuition is to access it.” Our intuition, the authors believe, is blocked by the constant volley of stimulus/response.

The authors clearly believe what they’re showing us here – something evident in the passion of their writing and their lives. The book includes Mr. Erwin’s own story about solitude in his life and its effect on his leadership. In an interview with Mr. Kethledge, his belief in solitude became obvious as he talked about his writing process. From outside his home in Michigan, Mr. Kethledge, a federal judge on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, does all his writing alone in his barn at a desk with a view overlooking a wide field. He said that his rural office gives him the opportunity to do what General Eisenhower did: synthesize the all-too-easily-accessible facts and data into books and judicial opinions.

The book is not a self-help book and the reader should not expect to finish the book and have a checklist of how to use solitude to increase their leadership skills. However, the authors’ examples are well-chosen and the case studies are well-written. The combination of bibliographic and historical information about each of the leaders is convincing and gives the reader confidence that solitude actually works. Like solitude itself, its use to improve ourselves is probably unique to each person. The authors do the reader a favor by not including a checklist. It forces the reader to think deeply about the way that solitude will work for them. Lead Yourself First, ultimately, is a book about solitude that provokes solitude.

Published by Bloomsbury, USA
240 pp