If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts
After reading this speech once, I realize these are the words I would have read to my past self in high school and again during my first days in college, and then again at the end of college at graduation. I would try to read them to my children at their different points in life (in person or as a digital avatar). There are powerful messages in this lecture delivered at West Point. He talks about leadership and what it means to be a leader, but he also explains how leadership and isolation play off of each other. He talks about how true leadership can be lonely and isolating, but also how loneliness and isolation can help you to become a better leader, a better thinker, a better human being. These include the abilities of a true leader: The ability to speak your mind even when you know what you are sharing is not held by the majority of those you are addressing; the ability to think critically, skeptically, and to adjust your perspectives to test and validate (or invalidate) a position, a solution, and even the questions asked of a problem, is valuable and rare. Maybe it's valuable because it's so rare. Or maybe it's so valuable because it isn't often appreciated at the time, like a work of great art or an invention that can't be commercialized. My favorite point was when he said, “So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.”
I don't agree that there is no leadership in many areas, many departments. I don't know how the author/speaker has come to those conclusions, considering his experiences and intelligence. Usually, people think they are being profound when they say there are no leaders, no poets, no great artists, etc. It's actually a sign that they lack imagination or real experience leading or creating. It's like saying we need to end poverty or hunger; saying it as if no body is trying to achieve these goals. Meanwhile, there are organizations plugging away, resisting, innovating, reaching, and achieving these goals...but at lower levels, lower numbers, temporarily. But he is not that guy. So, I value his speech and his ultimate points and reasoning and advice, but disagree on some points.
But leadership has changed, which is often unappreciated often. The “boss” is becoming ineffective. How do people realize that 21st century learning rejects lecturing and “top down” command structure and the “sage on the stage” but think leaders should still lecture and command from up-high? What is leadership in a world of complexity? Authority has changed. Hierarchies are collapsing, becoming lattices and noded-networks. Power and warfare include informality (informal power) and unorthodoxy (innovative). Temporary teams focus on short term projects and objectives.
The more informed, intelligent, and experienced commentator should explain how leadership has changed. But that’s not what complainers do. They don’t talk about complexity, complications, and wicked problems. They sound like apologists. They appear weak and confused and bureaucratic. The eyes of the audience will go glassy. But what do we know about leadership from Star Trek? Was Captain Kirk a better leader than Jean Luc Picard? How do you evaluate Mission Impossible of today? I wonder if people still want Clint Eastwood types. In the Game of Thrones, we are introduced to different kinds of leaders and different kinds of heroes. I wonder who is best, most heroic, and more effective at leading.
We say we want better problem solving, and say that this comes from thinking critically, communicating and collaborating. And we know solutions result best from all of this with reflection and more critical thinking. But what about time? How much time is given and how much time must be taken?
The lecturer redeems himself by saying this: “I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.”