Solitude and Leadership

A writer encourages a group of West Point plebes to practice introspection, concentration, and nonconformity

  • Robert F. Kennedy
    Robert F. Kennedy
    © Bettmann / CORBIS

  • Robert F. Kennedy

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. 

12/14/2017 10:33:58 AM

I use this as a touchstone text in my 8th grade language arts class. We wrestle to first understand it, then we keep coming back to it throughout the year for different purposes. Sadly, it has become more and more difficult for students to understand as the years pass. Part of it, I think, is the smart phone appendage they have all grown. They are NEVER alone, and many cannot conceive of the value in solitude.

Avriane Maritz
11/27/2010 3:39:44 AM

Wow.... I agree with the comment above. This speech will probably not be understood by many - if understanding has to do with recognizing the truth shining forth from it. It goes directly opposite what society nowadays wants us to believe - that you need to have the best qualifications, drive the right car, live in the best suburbs, having lots of money, etc. It reminds us that fulfilment is found in the very moment when and where one gives a task at hand one's full, still attention. An aspect of love flows from this, and in that moment fixing a dilapidated boat, or washing greasy dishes, becomes an act of transformation. THIS is our real life - being right there where the task is, and performing it with love and consciousness. And thinking in stillness or with a trusted person, indeed enables us to reach our own original conclusions. I too need to re-read this speech!

Albert E McClain
10/10/2010 3:40:24 PM

I guess it shouldn't surprise me that there aren't any comments on this wonderful piece of writing. This should be mandatory reading for EVERYONE! THANK YOU MR. DERESIEWICZ !

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