In a recent speech to the United States Military Academy at West Point, writer William Deresiewicz states his conviction that there is a crisis of leadership in America. He said:
. . . for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfil goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. . .
What we don’t have are people who can think for themselves; people who can formulate a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things; people with vision. (“Solitude and Leadership,” UTNE Reader, September–October 2010, 50.)
Deresiewicz could have been speaking about most countries in the world. He was speaking about leadership in general but he could have been speaking about leadership in the church. Therefore I was curious to see what he would propose to enable us to get the visionary leaders we need. His answer? Leadership needs two things — solitude and friendship. Deresiewicz was speaking at West Point, but when he mentions solitude and friendship as key components of leadership, he could have been quoting the Bible.
Deresiewicz says that leaders need solitude because it is only in solitude that we can find the concentration we need for breakthrough thinking. “You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating (“Solitude and Friendship,” 51).” Followers of Jesus will add that we also need solitude to be able to hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:12). We note the example of Jesus who sought solitude for prayer and for listening to His Father.
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. (Mark 1:35-39 NIV) It was in solitude that Jesus found the directions as to what He was to do in the face of the many demands on His life. Followers of Jesus who have been given leadership responsibilities can do no less.
Deresiewicz alerts us to two phenomena that works against solitude in today’s world — the modern propensity for multitasking, and our constant immersion in the media. He quotes a study by Stanford university that found that high multitaskers:
. . . were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information . . . They were more easily distracted. They were more unorganized, unable to keep information in the right conceptual boxes and retrieve it quickly. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking: switching between tasks. (“Solitude and Leadership,” 51)
Deresiewicz is also concerned about how we are plugged into the media all the time.
Here’s the . . . problem with Facebook and Twitter and the New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now — older people as well as younger people — you are constantly bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice . . . (“Solitude and Leadership,” 52)
That same cacophony also makes it impossible to hear the voice of God.
I don’t think Deresiewicz is calling us to be Luddites and to ignore the new media. What he is saying is, if leaders are serious about providing leadership, whether in church or in society, we must carve out time to be alone and to be focused, times when we are not multitasking or plugged in to the media. We need such times if our life is to be guided by hearing and obeying.
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (John 8:28 NIV)
We can understand why Deresiewicz champions solitude. We may wonder why he also champions friendship which seems to be the opposite of solitude. He explains that he is talking about a certain kind of friendship:
I’m talking about friendships marked by intimate conversation. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying, but long, uninterrupted talk with one other person . . . Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is talking to another person you can trust, to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things — to acknowledge things to yourself — that you otherwise can’t. (53)
The longer I live, the more I am convinced that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jeremiah 17:9a NIV) Solitude must be accompanied by honest dialogue with good friends to keep me honest and to help keep self-deception at bay. Good conversations also give birth to new insights that can only emerge in community. David G. Benner writes about the power of dialogue:
Dialogue involves shared inquiry designed to increase the awareness and understanding of all parties. In dialogue the intent is exploration, discovery and insight. In dialogue I attempt to share how I experience the world and seek to understand how you do. In this process each participant touches and is touched by others. This results in each person’s being changed. (Sacred Companions, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002, 55)
Deresiewicz may have been speaking about leadership in general, but his words are prophetic for the church as well. My own life, and the lives of many of us who serve the church, are marked by frenetic activity that leaves little space for solitude and spiritual friendship. We may end up faithfully running our ministries (for a while at least till emotional and physical burnout catches up with us) but are not able to provide the kind of life-giving decisive leadership that comes from hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches. That can only come from solitude and spiritual friendship.