Solitude: 5 Reasons Why Leaders Need Time Alone

I had a lot of things on my mind. Our start-up company was growing fast but I felt there was more we could be doing. As CEO, I needed time to think, but with so many tasks that had to be done each day, I had a hard time focusing. I felt that if I stopped working, something would get missed. It seemed like taking the time to work out my thoughts was a luxury I couldn’t afford.

One morning, as I was preparing the list of actions that had to get done that day, I couldn’t ignore the noise in my head any longer. I knew I needed to get away from my desk and think. I found a quiet spot in the back of our warehouse and I set up a cheap folding table and chair.

With just a notebook, a pen and a few hours of quiet contemplation, I was able to establish a new direction for our young company. I wrote these questions down. Why do customers buy from us? What makes us special? How do we embed that in the culture? How do we tell other customers about us? The outcome of that brainstorming session led to a new way to focus and market our company. The result has been increased sales and market exposure.

We live in a connected world where leaders are expected to be accessible at all times. This often results in leaders being too busy and distracted to think. Authors, Raymond M. Kethledge and Mike Erwin, remind us that great leaders seek out time to be alone. In their book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, Kethledge and Erwin detail dozens of stories of contemporary and historical leaders who used solitude to become more effective and impactful.

The authors describe five ways solitude can help leaders:

Clarity. As in my case, quiet contemplation can help a leader make sense of a lot of information. Sitting quietly and thinking through complex issues can often lead to breakthrough moments. Dwight D. Eisenhower found clarity in the weeks leading up to the D-Day invasion by spending hours alone in his tent. The solitude helped him realize that the airborne operation was the key to success on Utah beach.

Creativity. Leaders need time to imagine and create a vision for the future. Walt Disney famously created a drawing in 1957 which detailed a vision for his fledgling company. That vision, which has been fully realized today, has resulted in a company that is worth more than $164 billion.

Perspective. The daily demands on a leader are primarily focused on the short term. These are urgent tasks that must be accomplished to keep the organization running. But, spending time alone, allows leaders to see a different perspective. It allows leaders to consider the bigger picture, to assess progress and to establish a new direction.

Emotional balance. Leaders use solitude to step away from their teams to deal with their own personal emotions. Leading an organization is stressful. Leaders can get angry, frustrated and impatient. Acting on those emotions is bad for business. Solitude can be used to sort out those emotions in private and respond properly.

Moral courage. Leaders need to make the tough decisions that often affect people’s lives in a significant way. Solitude can be used to find the courage to face these difficult challenges. In the early days of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used time alone in prayer and quiet contemplation, to determine if he would lead this important crusade. It was during this time that his inner voice told him to, “Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.”

As a leader, it is often hard to focus. With so many issues requiring your attention, it’s difficult to stay ahead of the demand for your time. It’s becoming even more challenging to unplug and be alone in an increasingly connected world where leaders are expected to be accessible around the clock. While it is important to be present as a leader, it is also important to find time to be alone. Solitude is necessary to be a great leader. Time alone will help you find clarity and be creative. It will help you seek courage and balance. Solitude will give you a chance to see your situation from a new perspective. Don’t be afraid to step away from the action and spend time by yourself. It’s an important part of a leader’s job.

10 Step Guide to Lead your Team into the New Year


If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else. – Yogi Berra

It’s a new year and a fresh start for you and your team. It’s also one of the most important times for you as a leader. While it’s fun reminiscing about 2014, it’s critical that you quickly align your leadership team and total organization to focus on the goals for 2015.

Having a clear, concise, well-communicated set of goals for your organization has many benefits:

  • It aligns the team at all levels
  • It focuses the team on the right priorities
  • It sets the benchmark to measure performance
  • It can be used to establish incentives and drive behavior
  • It defines what success looks like in the new year

The problem is that most companies fail to focus on a clear set of goals for the year. David Leonard and Claude Coltea wrote in a recent Gallup article that, “The problem is that in too many companies, front-line employees receive dozens of high-priority messages — some complementary, some competing — from executives, managers, and change leaders each day. These conflicting messages make it difficult for workers to know what tasks or metrics they should focus on during a given day.” This lack of focus creates confusion, added expense, and waste in any organization. This is why annual business planning is extremely important for every organization.

You might be thinking that it’s too late to conduct your planning session for the new year, but it’s actually the perfect time. I like to conduct my annual planning session right after the financial and operational metrics are finalized for the year, usually in mid January. Knowing the final numbers creates the perfect foundation for the planning session. The mid January timing is also good because, at this point, budgets are finalized, top down goals have been established, and mandated programs have already been made known.

The annual planning session is critical in developing a clear and concise set of goals for the new year. Ideally, it can be done in one day and I prefer to go off-site to minimize the disruptions. The session has ten easy steps:

  1. Review last year’s financial performance compared to budget
  2. Review last year’s key metrics compared to goals
  3. Review last year’s key initiatives compared to goals
  4. Conduct an honest assessment of the prior year: What went well? What went wrong? What do you need to more of? What do you need to improve on? What were some of the key lessons from the prior year?
  5. Review the new year’s financial budget and establish stretch targets. Build basic waterfall charts for order and profit growth to reach the stretch objectives
  6. Review any new mandated metrics and initiatives
  7. Develop the new year’s key metric goals
  8. Develop the new year’s list of key initiatives
  9. Get commitment from team
  10. Develop a one-page list of the new year’s goals– Key Financials, Key Metrics, and Key Initiatives to send to the leadership team

The discussions and debates during this process helps build consensus of the key lessons of the prior year as well as an agreement on the way forward in the new year. Being able to debate these issues increases the level of buy-in from team members as well.

The final output, a one-page list of the new year’s goals, becomes the guiding document for the new year. It is important this document is cascaded throughout the entire organization with front-line managers explaining the importance of each element in the plan. If done properly, you will quickly align your leadership team and total organization to focus on the goals for 2015.

The Secret to Great Brainstorming


Brainstorming is one of the most effective methods of engaging employees in generating new ideas and solving tough problems. If done right, it is a fast-paced, interactive session where new ideas are generated. As a leader, the challenge is facilitating the discussion to ensure the absolute best ideas are surfaced.

Aaron Aders, co-founder and CSO of DigitalRelevance, suggests six steps to leading a productive brainstorming session. These include:

  1. Always go offsite
  2. Solidify your central focus
  3. Whiteboard your ideas in a Mind Map
  4. Create ideas, not plans
  5. Shut down “Blockers” and “Divers”
  6. Schedule the next steps

While this is an excellent list, I think Aaron is missing out on the most important thing you must do as a leader. It is critical that you engage the quietest person in the room. After 25 years of leading sessions like this, I’ve found the best ideas have almost always come from this person.

Aaron mentions two personality types you will encounter in brainstorming sessions, Blocker and Divers. A Blocker is someone who quickly shuts down ideas by deeming them impossible to implement. A Diver is just the opposite. This person will take up the session time by diving deep into developing the idea further. Both can derail a brainstorming session if not dealt with.

I would suggest there is another personality type you need to look out for, Dominators. These are the people who will dominate the conversation with their ideas and their opinions. If left unchecked, Dominators can take up all your session time and possibly lead you to miss out on other important ideas.

In the session, it will become clear who are your Blockers, Divers, and Dominators. It will also be clear who the quietest person in the room is. It is important that you engage that person to get their thoughts. You will almost always be surprised at the insight they bring. There are 5 reasons why I believe these people have the most interesting ideas:

1. They let others fire the first shot. Don’t let their silence fool you. They have strong opinions but they are waiting to see some of the other ideas first. This lets them contrast their thoughts with the opinions of others.

2. They are listening. Their silence means they are listening to all the other compelling ideas. This allows them to better refine their own thoughts.

3. They are thinking deeply about the problem. Henry Louis Mencken once said, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” The challenge is that complex problems require deep thinking and the quiet person is thinking while others are talking.

4. They are considering a combined solution. Often, in these sessions, there are two or three big ideas that are being discussed and debated. I have learned that quiet members of the team are listening to the discussion and are considering an alternative idea that combines the best of several ideas.

5. They are waiting to see the debate reach some level of consensus. I’ve noticed these people usually don’t get into the early debate and discussion of ideas. They are more likely to sit back, listen to the discussion, and wait until a consensus is reached. It is important to engage them at this point. Often times, especially when they don’t agree with the consensus opinion, their insight provides the necessary spark to move the discussion forward to find an optimum solution.

Brainstorming sessions are an important leadership tool to gain employee buy-in and to gather a diverse set of insights, opinions, and ideas. If done correctly, it will provide both a powerful learning session as well as a consensus opinion on the important next steps for your organization. As you lead these sessions, it is important to understand the personality types you will encounter to ensure they don’t dominate the discussion. It is also critical to engage the quietest person in the room. You will almost always be surprised at the important revelations and critical insight they bring.