The Leadership Gift of Solitude

“We live, in fact, in an age starved for solitude.”
C.S. Lewis

Principal Andy Camarda of Lemon Road Elementary in Fairfax County, VA, recommended I read Kethledge and Erwin’s book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. He felt it complimented our teaching about the value of silence as well as the brain research that says insight comes from quiet reflection. Talk about a match! This book takes it even deeper.

Solitude is defined by the authors as “a subjective state of mind, in which the mind, isolated from input from other minds, works through a problem on its own.” Certainly, this sounds like a key attribute of coaching. Further, they speak of the different purposes for which leaders use solitude – to find clarity, creativity, emotional balance, and moral courage. And finally, they offer the critical idea,

“Personal leadership – leading oneself – is the foundation of leading others.

And, personal leadership comes through solitude.”

By examining the solitude habits of leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower, Jane Goodall, Abraham Lincoln, Aung San Suu Kyi, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II, the authors illustrate how leaders use solitude to be more effective.

How Leaders Use Solitude to Be More Effective

  1. Ray, one of the authors, is a federal judge. When writing opinions in difficult cases, he retreats to his barn office overlooking Lake Huron without any internet connection.
  2. Darwin Smith, CEO of Kimberly-Clark makes his biggest strategic decisions in what he calls, “tractor time.”
  3. Winston Churchill would lay bricks.
  4. Bill Gates set aside entire weeks to just go away, to read, and to reflect. These were his “think weeks.”
  5. Warren Buffet found the quietude of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska to be his place of solitude. He also offers us this quote, “Inactivity can be very intelligent behavior.”
  6. George Washington would ride his horse around Mount Vernon for hours at a time.

What About Educators?

Jim Collins, while writing the forward for the book, was also completing a study of leaders who lead K-12 schools to high results during the most difficult and adverse of circumstances to learn how they use solitude to support the demands of the work, day after day, year after year. He was interested in how these educational leaders were finding “alone time” to reflect and recharge.

He discovered one Principal who intentionally creates a “personal bubble” every morning, just sitting in her car, before heading into the building. Another person dedicates “white space” in her calendar. She makes appointments with herself for the sole purpose of solitude.

The two practices that will amplify the gifts of solitude are systematically building pockets of solitude into our life and, secondly, recognizing the unexpected opportunities for solitude and then seizing them.

How are you building daily pockets of solitude into your life?

Reference: Kethledge, R., & Erwin, M. (2017). Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

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Karen Anderson, PCC, M. Ed.

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3 thoughts on “The Leadership Gift of Solitude

  1. My need for solitude increases as the number of personal interactions each day increase. My personal time is often in my car during my long commute to work. Solutions, new thinking, and action steps come easily. Creativity is also activated as I mull over thorny issues. Once I think through a problem in solitude (with my own head and heart) I often ask someone their thoughts on my plan. That is my check and I use it with the few I trust. Many times that is with my own colleagues.

  2. This is such a great time for this blog! I too, like Dr. Schaeffer have a good time of solitude on my way to and from work each day – It is a great time to ask myself, “what if” and “I wonder” questions. I love this time and will say to myself, OK when I get into my office I will….but like many of us, once we step on campus our time is not always our time. I have started keeping a pen and notepad in my car – since it is unsafe to write, email, or text oneself while driving, I try to write my thoughts down as soon as my car stops moving (admittedly, red lights count). When I arrive to work, I take the time to write down our email myself notes about the pondering I worked through on my commute. I think as principals we fall guilty of taking time for ourselves as we feel our time is not ours – it belongs to the school, the teachers, our parents, and our students. However, we do need to take time to breath and to ponder our next steps:)

  3. Kathryn,
    Thank you for sharing your strategies for harnessing the power of solitude. You support the purposes of solitude mentioned by the authors – clarity, creativity, emotional balance, and moral courage.

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