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.