Embracing Solitude As A Part of Your Leadership Practice

Beth Ford
Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee

If you had told me 5 years ago that I would attend a Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference and see a breakout led by one of the circuit court judges about solitude, I would have told you that this is the Sixth Circuit, not the Ninth.   Not only was that an offering on the agenda, there was standing room only to listen to Judge Kethledge discuss solitude and his new book called “Lead Yourself First:  Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.”

Because I have met few books that I did not think would look good on my shelf, I, of course, bought the book and then brought it to the beach.  I figured that the book was probably going to make a round trip to the beach without being opened.  Who has time for solitude?  My calendar and to do list have no room for a luxury like solitude.  And, I am an extrovert.  Being by myself for longer than 10 minutes can be depressing.

Of course, I was wrong about both, not having time and solitude not being for extroverts.  “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.”  Not only is it a practice that leaders should and can be involved in, most of us are probably already involved in some form of solitude without realizing it.

No one will disagree that the world is too loud and that we are overwhelmed by a flood of information every time that we turn around.  We mistakenly think that the more we multitask and the more plugged in that we are, the better our leadership skills become.  We need to find a way to separate ourselves from all of the clutter and find clarity so that we are able to deal with the hard things, whether it is how to resolve a sticky personnel issue or how to attack a particularly complicated legal issue.

Judge Kethledge and his co-author, Michael S. Erwin, give examples of solitude practices used by several world-famous leaders in order to illustrate the concepts of analytical clarity, creativity, emotional balance, acceptance, catharsis, magnanimity moral courage, and d the dignity not to conform.  President Eisenhower, the very definition of an extrovert, wrote himself memos that he did not share.  Writing the memos was how he worked through thorny problems, like when the D-Day invasion should occur.  Martin Luther King, Jr., sat alone in his kitchen at night.

My guess is that most of us participate in some sort of solitude in our approach to challenging issues.  I see Doug Blaze walking alone around West Hills Park.  I know that Melanie Wilson plays golf by herself.  I like to arrive at work before everyone else.  Even though we may have some habits that involve solitude, we can probably all improve, and the book has practical suggestions.  This past week at the beach, I have tried to put some of those suggestions into practice, and I think that I have solved some problems that have dogged me for some time.  Now if I can just convince my board of directors that this was a working vacation.

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