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.

Staying on Course: How to Protect Your Mission

As the machinery division officer on a nuclear submarine during the cold war, I had the challenging task of checking the boat for “rattles” before every deployment. This meant climbing down into every part of the hull structure with a rubber mallet and pounding on anything that could possibly move to make sure it was secure. The goal was to eliminate anything that could make noise.

I knew our boat had one mission, to remain undetected and be prepared to launch our missiles if needed. Inspecting the hull structure was simply part of that mission. In fact, everything we did on board revolved around the mission. Our training, our routines and even our footwear ensured we would remain quiet and ready. “Hide with pride” was the nickname we all used to describe our mission.

The military does a respectable job of focusing its people on the mission. This cannot be said for most companies and organizations. If you asked ten employees what the mission of their company is, you will likely get ten different answers. This is because most company leaders assume everyone knows the mission. The sad truth is that no one really knows what the mission is because leaders don’t talk about it. And when the mission is unknown or unclear, chaos reigns.

One of the biggest problems is “mission drift.” Over time, organizations routinely drift from their founding purpose. When a company or organization is young, its founding mission is usually very clear. The founders and early employees instinctively understand the mission and carry it out daily. But, as time goes on and new people are brought in, the mission becomes muted.

Peter Greer and Chris Horst discuss this in their book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. They say that “without careful attention…organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission.” Staying on course and protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and conscious effort.

Consider these five actions to keep focused and stay on track:

Start with why. Simon Sinek’s breakout bestseller, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, explains how some organizations are simply more innovative, influential and successful than others. The reason is that their leaders understand and communicate their “why” to their employees. These leaders realized that people aren’t truly motivated by a vision or a mission until they fully understand the motivation behind it. Figuring out your “why” is critical to motivating your team to stay on course.

Know your mission. You can’t expect to be a mission-focused organization if people don’t know the mission. Most leaders incorrectly assume everyone knows the mission. Don’t make this mistake. Communicate and repeat the mission statement every day in meetings and daily discussions. Develop a common language around the mission like we did in the Navy. Make it simple and easy to understand.

 Hire people who embody the mission. Mission-minded organizations know that it’s the people that carry out the mission. This is why hiring the right employees is so critical. Look for individuals who display characteristics and experience that will be essential in achieving the mission. Look for those that will fit the culture of the organization. Leaders should also work with new employees to set expectations early and to monitor their progress.

Make the hard decisions to protect the mission. The real test of a leader is making the hard decisions and staying true to the mission when faced with conflicting priorities. These typically involve employees, ownership, money, customers, suppliers or partners. A leader who protects the mission and makes the tough call to put the mission first will be respected by the team. They will know there is a deep commitment to the vision of the organization.

Measure what matters. What gets measured, gets done. The things you measure should reflect your organization’s mission and objectives. For example, if you want to be the fastest supplier in the industry, measure lead times. If you are trying to become a premier college-prep high school, measure the number of college scholarships awarded to seniors each year. The challenge is identifying the right things to measure. Metrics that matter to your mission aren’t always easy to identify or track. Still, push hard to find something that can be used as a gauge of your success.

Staying on course and protecting the mission is difficult, especially in the long term. Mission drift and conflicting priorities can derail the efforts of any organization. Finding your “why” and communicating your mission on a daily basis to employees will help solidify your focus. Keep your mission in mind when hiring, making decisions and measuring results. Don’t leave the success of your organization to chance.  Protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and deliberate effort.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda R. Gray/Released]