Solitude and Leadership
A writer encourages a group of West Point plebes to practice introspection, concentration, and nonconformity
Robert F. Kennedy
© Bettmann / CORBIS
This speech was delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point last October.
What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. When we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.
Leadership is what you are here to learn at West Point—the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.
I just spent 10 years teaching at Yale University, an institution that—like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and West Point—constantly encourages its students to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society.
As I taught, I began to wonder what leadership really consists of. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight A’s make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons and great novelists and great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders.
Things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. My peers and I didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school: classes and standardized tests, extracurriculars in school and extracurriculars outside of school; test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors.
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