Over the years, we have done a great deal on the issue of leadership.
Many of the issues that seem substantive — traceability and whether United and PMA should merge or cooperate in some way — are less questions amenable to technical solution than they are challenges crying out for leadership.
Leadership is, however, difficult to exert. It is even difficult to define.
We ran a piece in Pundit sister publication, PROPDUCE BUSINESS, titled, Effectiveness More Crucial Than Leadership, on the issue of management vs. leadership. Now we would like to extend a hat tip to Ed Kershaw, CEO at Domex Superfresh Growers, for sending us a piece on Leadership. He calls it “the best article I have ever read on Leadership.”
It is called Solitude and Leadership and ran in The American Scholar. It was originally a lecture delivered to the Plebe Class at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
In the piece the author, William Deresiewicz, tries to distinguish between high achievers and true leaders. Here are a few pointed excerpts:
We need to begin by talking about what leadership really means. I just spent 10 years teaching at another institution that, like West Point, liked to talk a lot about leadership, Yale University. A school that some of you might have gone to had you not come here, that some of your friends might be going to. And if not Yale, then Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. These institutions, like West Point, also see their role as the training of leaders, constantly encourage their students, like West Point, to regard themselves as leaders among their peers and future leaders of society. Indeed, when we look around at the American elite, the people in charge of government, business, academia, and all our other major institutions — senators, judges, CEOs, college presidents, and so forth — we find that they come overwhelmingly either from the Ivy League and its peer institutions or from the service academies, especially West Point.
So I began to wonder, as I taught at Yale, what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists 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 even exÂcellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me
See, 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. We 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, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in — in addition to perfect grades and top scores — usually had 10 or 12.
So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.
That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.
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. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill 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 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 experÂtise. What we don’t have are leaders.
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, for the Army — a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.
Look at the most successful, most acclaimed, and perhaps the finest soldier of his generation, General David Petraeus. He’s one of those rare people who rises through a bureaucracy for the right reasons. He is a thinker. He is an intellectual. In fact, Prospect magazine named him Public Intellectual of the Year in 2008 — that’s in the world. He has a Ph.D. from Princeton, but what makes him a thinker is not that he has a Ph.D. or that he went to Princeton or even that he taught at West Point. I can assure you from personal experience that there are a lot of highly educated people who don’t know how to think at all.
No, what makes him a thinker — and a leader — is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.
It wasn’t always easy for him. His path to where he is now was not a straight one. When he was running Mosul in 2003 as commander of the 101st Airborne and developing the strategy he would later formulate in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and then ultimately apply throughout Iraq, he pissed a lot of people off. He was way ahead of the leadership in Baghdad and Washington, and bureaucracies don’t like that sort of thing. Here he was, just another two-star, and he was saying, implicitly but loudly, that the leadership was wrong about the way it was running the war. Indeed, he was not rewarded at first. He was put in charge of training the Iraqi army, which was considered a blow to his career, a dead-end job. But he stuck to his guns, and ultimately he was vindicated. Ironically, one of the central elements of his counterinsurgency strategy is precisely the idea that officers need to think flexibly, creatively, and independently
The piece goes on to discuss the importance of focus and to disparage the idea of multi-tasking. In the end, it points to leadership as a solitary, even lonely, activity:
You’ve probably heard about the hazing scandal at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain that was all over the news recently. Terrible, abusive stuff that involved an entire unit and was orchestrated, allegedly, by the head of the unit, a senior noncommissioned officer. What are you going to do if you’re confronted with a situation like that going on in your unit? Will you have the courage to do what’s right? Will you even know what the right thing is? It’s easy to read a code of conduct, not so easy to put it into practice, especially if you risk losing the loyalty of the people serving under you, or the trust of your peer officers, or the approval of your superiors. What if you’re not the commanding officer, but you see your superiors condoning something you think is wrong?
How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?
These are truly formidable dilemmas, more so than most other people will ever have to face in their lives, let alone when they’re 23. The time to start preparing yourself for them is now. And the way to do it is by thinking through these issues for yourself — morality, mortality, honor — so you will have the strength to deal with them when they arise. Waiting until you have to confront them in practice would be like waiting for your first firefight to learn how to shoot your weapon. Once the situation is upon you, it’s too late. You have to be prepared in advance. You need to know, already, who you are and what you believe: not what the Army believes, not what your peers believe (that may be exactly the problem), but what you believe.
How can you know that unless you’ve taken counsel with yourself in solitude? I started by noting that solitude and leadership would seem to be contradictory things. But it seems to me that solitude is the very essence of leadership. 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.
This week PMA is having its board of directors meeting. Reading this piece may help focus them on their task.
Many thanks to Ed Kershaw and Domex Superfresh Growers for passing this along.