Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Solitude and Leadership, pt. 2

Last week, we began to investigate the lecture Solitude and Leadership, which William Deresiewicz delivered to West Point students. His main points: conformity leads to stupidity and stagnation. Distraction leads the same way. You need to spend time alone, with thoughts or focused work, in order to discover who you are and what you stand for. And only with that self-knowledge can you trust yourself to do the right thing. And only if you choose the right path, even against criticism, can you be called a leader.


I want to be a leader. Of course I do: I'm smart and arrogant and have suffered only minor failures before. I've noticed that I get excited reading about how to be an effective leader, that being in positions of power where I can play to my strengths makes me happy, and that I love control. Mostly, I want to be benevolent, the kind of leader who gives power to "subordinates" who then test their own limits and go on to do great things.

Women in leadership positions, I have read, face a set of challenges that male leaders don't contend with to the same degree. They are seen as pushy and overbearing and out of line for actions that would go uncommented-upon in men. I can only imagine that the prejudice is stronger in male-heavy fields like engineering (where I'll be).

Awareness of these challenges makes me angry, which means motivated. Because I know, personally, many young women who are excellent leaders, who are smart and charismatic and organized and decisive and confident. And I know myself, and though I don't do well with megaphones, I do lead well in the sense that I can leverage the strengths of the people below me.

A couple of months ago, I read the book Quiet, by Susan Cain, about introversion and introverts and what we contribute to society. This may seem like a strange tangent in the middle of a post about introversion, but really, it isn't, because there is more than one way to lead, and in certain cases, introverted leaders do better.

Introverted leaders, Cain notes, are most effective with a proactive (as opposed to passive) team beneath them:
"Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity, in other words." (57)

This approach may seem to have little in common with Deresiewicz's article, since he argues that leaders must know themselves thoroughly before being fit to lead. But it takes courage and self-confidence and self-awareness to admit that someone else has better ideas than you--to consider improvements and then implement them.

Directions that flow from the top should be questioned. Suggestions that rise from below should be considered dutifully. In other words, think of superiors as wrong until proven right, and inferiors as right until proven wrong.

(Does this post seem rambly? Of course it does. I am exploring ideas.)

How do you judge in/correct in such cases? Sometimes an idea's worth will become obvious when tested in the field: for example, in my volunteer club a freshman suggested we ask a bakery for donations, which worked splendidly. But to judge a conceptual framework, or an idea that doesn't have immediate and concrete results, then, Deresiewicz's thesis comes in: you have to have an internal concept of 'good' and 'bad' against which to judge other ideas.

Conformity can end poorly; conventions generally decrease in usefulness as you get farther away from the context in which they were created. That's why I want to emphasize the importance of your "inferiors": because it's easy to discount ideas that come from someone without status-clout, a shame because that's where a lot of good ideas grow.

Perhaps ironically, Deresiewicz's address to the West Point students leads me to thought circles inhabited by tech startup people. Specifically:

The Graham essay is all about why the marginal, the edge, the outsiders, often do better than the complacent crowd within the borders. A big part of it is that when you are on the outside you don't have people watching you, making you justify your every move. You are more alone than someone in the middle, and so you are freer to follow your own judgment even when it goes counter to what is expected.

The Newcomb essay--or manifesto, more like--discusses how to attract the best people to your team and how to keep them happy enough that they stay. This centrality of your team perhaps seems to oppose this post's focus on what the leader does, but I'd say that this approach falls squarely into the introverted leader's effective range.

Being a leader isn't about forcing your ideas down other people's throats. It's not about delivering ultimatums to a docile, browbeaten mass of subhumanity. It's about mobilizing people in order to solve problems.

By that definition, Deresiewicz and Cain and Graham and Newcomb intersect in that they all offer methods of solving problems better, with and through other people. Deresiewicz perhaps falls a step farther along in the process, because as he says:

The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

Or maybe he's farther ahead? Because the leader always has to make choices. What problem are we going to try to solve? What do we do next? Team members are vital in supplying the "how" but let us put up as a hypothesis that the leader picks the "what."

The team supplies the strength and skill; the leader chooses the direction. And while others' input on the "what" question helps, because others' perspectives always offer something different and perhaps valuable, in the end the leader decides. The leader evaluates the options and applies her, or his, judgment.

Leader means point person, means the person who gets blamed if something goes wrong--because the leader chose.

A summary: to lead effectively, listen well, take care of your people, and cultivate your sense of discernment so that when you make decisions, you make them well and honestly.


Since I've been talking about it so much on this blog, I might as well tell you all the final word on my college decisions. I have enrolled in the Stanford class of 2018!

A factor in my decision was that I see a Stanford education as better enabling me to be an effective leader, whereas at Caltech I'd get major technical chops but perhaps not the auxiliary skills.

A note about the next couple of weeks: I'm not as busy this year as I was last, when I took three weeks off active blogging. Only four AP tests (ha). I plan on writing a post on Friday, but the next two weeks I may have scheduled posts. They'll be good, though.

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