On leadership

Leaders move in silence

In order to be confident of victory an army must have confidence in the prudence of its captain. - Livy

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Leaders who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Leaders who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Leaders who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place.

What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.


What does solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others—the people being led. When one thinks about leadership in American history one is likely to think of George Washington, at the head of an army, or Teddy Roosevelt, at the head of a nation, or Malcolm X, at the head of a movement—people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. When thinking of solitude, one is apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is the qualities of character and mind that will make one fit to lead organizations and people. Solitude is what one has the least of here, especially as people in a constantly turned on and plugged in society. One does not have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with ones thoughts. And yet, I proclaim that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.

Does being a leader, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting a 1600 on your SAT make one a leader? No. Great surgeons or great writers or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders.

Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. We are not training leaders we are raising sheep that are trained to jump through any hoop. The Ivy league, the premier job, the leading community outreach organization. All of these entities force individuals to conform to one way of doing things to be accepted.

When turning to business, a company, after all, is just that: a company, with rules and procedures and ranks and people in power and people scrambling for power, just like any other bureaucracy. Just like a big law firm or a governmental department or, for that matter, a university. The word bureaucracy tends to have negative connotations, but I say this in no way as a criticism, bureaucracies have a place in society, but they should not be the only operating system. Bureaucracies don’t allow people to be nimble and malleable with actions and directives, one must stick to standard operating procedures and chain of command.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People with vision.

That’s what Emerson meant when he said that:

he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions. 


The role of leadership is to convert lingering potential into outstanding results. The opportunity to do so is apparent, yet for some reason it does not enter the consciousness of many leaders. This notion of potential is not limited to just business. It is visible in professional sports when teams transform from losing to winning with essentially the same lineup, but different leadership. The It factor, breath of fresh air, is real. Any person or organization can tap into this, but many fail to act.

Amplifying performance is not easy because you will make people uncomfortable. There will be intransigence. Change is difficult for many. Some may choose to leave. If one wants to be liked as a leader, this route may not be the route. The role of a leader is to change the status quo, push the tempo, and increase output. Leaders are the pace setters and life blood of organizations. Some people subtract energy from organizations; not motivated leaders, they permeate organizations and its people with energy.

Organizations should be built and run for performance. Being singleminded in pursuit of goals, and driven by its people to become the best version of themselves. For the best people, it can be an incredibly liberating experience. Many subscribe to the notion of a 'performance culture', or even claim to have one, but few appreciate what that means, what that takes, and what you have to give up. Organizations looking to increase intensity should be full of people willing to step into the arena.

What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can get only by practice. - Theodore Roosevelt

Organizations should internally advocate for people to be drivers, not passengers. Passengers eventually end up in the same place as drivers but they are dead weight. If it is a subtle distinction, there is work to be done. 

As a leader, ones opportunity is to reset in each of these dimensions. One does it in every single conversation, meeting, and encounter. One looks for and exploits every single opportunity to step up the pace, expect a higher quality outcome, and narrow the plane of attack. Then, one relentlessly follows up and executes at every turn.

Raising Ideals

Intolerance is a trait of a leader who elevates everyone around them. If one wants to lead, one must become intolerant. One must be intolerant to the things around that are not working, the things that are stagnant, the things that are not leading and inspiring others to push for excellence. Until the pressure is on, one doesn’t know how much better and faster one can be. Mediocrity is a silent killer that cannot be cast aside until excellence is demanded.  

The fastest way to move excel is to narrow the focus. People naturally resist focus because they cannot decide what is important. Therein lies a problem: people can typically explain after some deliberation what their top three priorities are, but they struggle to decide on just one. They may also be incorrect about their priorities, so there is potential for misallocation of resources. What is too much and what is too little focus? When answering this question it is safe to say that most people are not focused enough.

When one narrows ones focus, one is increasing the resourcing on the remaining priority. Set fewer and clearer objectives. Do less. Fate moves, too, when one focuses all things seem to move more fluidly and objectives are carried our with ease. It’s not just an effectiveness problem, one needs to determine what is truly important. One procrastinates by declaring multiple priorities. Concise, critical thinking is rare. But, concise thinking is what is needed to truly excel.

Leaders are not people with management titles per se. Leaders set standards of performance for others to follow. Anyone, at anytime, can decide to be a leader. It is just a different mode of getting up in the morning. Everybody wants results, but not everybody wants to do what that takes.

The time to start preparing oneself is now. The way to do it is by thinking through these issues of morality, mortality, and honor in order to have the strength to deal with them when they arise. One has to be prepared in advance. One needs to know, already, what one believes: not what others believe, not what ones mentors believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what one truly believes and stands for.