The Virtue of Solitude

The companion discipline of silence is solitude.  (See my post on The Virtue of the Silent Leader.)  In the ancient world, silence and solitude were acknowledged as the twin disciplines of abstinence.  Solitude creates a space for silence, and silence creates an opportunity for solitude.

Abstinence, silence, and solitude are words rarely proffered by prestigious business schools like Harvard, M.I.T., or Wharton, but I believe part of the crisis we are experiencing today is because we have been teaching leaders to achieve, but not to think.  We’ve taught them how to answer questions, but not how to discipline themselves to ask them.  That discipline requires solitude.

Solitude creates a space for stillness that awakens the mind and deepens the soul.  The wisest man I ever knew was one of my doctoral professors, Dallas Willard, who served as professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California for nearly 45 years. I still have his class notes on silence and solitude:

“You can’t have solitude with noise.  Silence is not an absence but a presence: a positive reality. Silence is like the wind of eternity blowing in your face.”

Bad leaders covet the company of others; good leaders are stimulated by the company of others; but great leaders will shun the company of others at times to create a space for deep reflection.  

Solitude allows us to be still. Frantic executives, overwhelmed with multi-tasking and conflicting priorities, are really lazy leaders who do not have the discipline to reach new heights as professionals or to search their personal depths.  Their need to be in command and control mode feeds their addiction to words, sounds, and power. Executives who cannot be alone cannot lead others out of crisis.

I am not alone in the conviction that solitude is a requirement for the leader who seeks to serve first and lead second. The seminal guru of all business leaders was Peter Drucker, a brilliant and thoughtful academic who understood human behavior.  He stated:

“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”

Here are some suggestions to help you develop the virtue of solitude:

  1. Start with 3-4 hours and find a quiet place where there is little contact with other people.
  2. Turn off your cell, take several deep breaths to relax, and be still.
  3. Don’t fight the sounds and thoughts that you experience.  Instead, allow them to form a background of rhythm and a pattern.

With time and practice, you will develop a level of comfort with solitude.  You will find that questions will evolve into directions; that conundrums yield to elegant solutions.

Reflection is a rare commodity among today’s leaders. Learn to embrace the virtue of solitude. The time you spend there may be some of the most rewarding of your career.