Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Solitude and Leadership

Solitude and Leadership, by William Deresiewicz, is an essay based on a lecture on leadership that he delivered to last year's West Point plebe class.

The essay argues that elite educations today produce people who are expert at excelling in systems and bureaucracies and not people who will excel as leaders. Leadership for WD is not about "jumping through hoops" to progress up the "system" but rather leadership is best exemplified by those who are self-aware, deeply thoughtful, and able to think creatively and independently.

Elite education, he argues, conditions people via a system of rewards and progression to excel in systems rather than forge independent and risky paths. He writes,
"Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going."

In many companies, the incentive for creativity, for challenging the normal, for innovating processes is close to nil. Too often, the lack of senior support and the inertia of big companies "break the spirit" of those who have vision to see a new way forward. Rather than reward creativity and iteration, the system throws roadblocks in the way that eventually wear the innovator down.

Big companies are often hollowed out - ie the best and brightest are driven out by those content to manage the system rather than to challenge it. What's left is deadening - both to those who work in the system and, ultimately, to the system itself.

What's fascinating is his argument regarding the pernicious effects of today's elite educational systems - arguing, convincingly, that leadership is not learnt by excelling in educational system - doing what is required to advance to the next level - but rather through introspection, self-awareness, and the ability to concentrate on what matters rather than what is rewarded.

A great read.

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