Solitude and leadership

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Lincoln alone, writing the Emancipation Proclamation (source)

One of my favorite talks is “Solitude and Leadership” by William Deresiewicz in a lecture that was delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009. It’s about the critical and often overlooked link between solitude and leadership. We tend to think of leaders when they are “in the arena” or practicing “management by walking around” but not as much about the necessity for leaders to spend time sitting alone, thinking and reflecting.

The transcript of the talk is worth reading in its entirety but I pulled a few quotes below to give you a flavor:

My title must seem like a contradiction. 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. And 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—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. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.

. . . . .

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 exper­tise. 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.

. . . .

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

. . . . .

You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?

. . . .

it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

. . . .

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even 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 continuously 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, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

. . . .

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.

Again, here’s the link to the full speech.

Co-teaching a new class at Cornell Tech: BigCo Studio

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Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in NYC

I’ve been formally involved with Cornell Tech as a Fellow for about a year now and it has been super-fun having a front-row seat to seeing a major university rise on an island in the middle of New York City, the greatest city in the world. Cornell Tech’s major point of differentiation from most graduate institutions is its Studio program. All the components of the program are described on the web site but to really boil it down, the Studio program is about combining a top-notch academic foundation with the real-world experience of building actual products and services with multidisciplinary teams (design, engineering, business, and legal).

The Studio program has had an excellent Startup Studio track for years, led by David Tisch. Many students coming out of Cornell Tech will work for larger companies (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.) and I’m excited to write that I will be co-leading and co-teaching a new track to complement Startup Studio with my good friend, former colleague, and Google exec Bradley Horowitz. We’re calling it BigCo Studio:

In this class, students will learn how to successfully navigate the opportunities and challenges of a BigCo (Big Company) and build products in a complex environment at scale. Students will also learn about how business development, M&A, and other corporate activities complement, and sometimes compete with product teams to drive larger strategic initiatives forward in BigCos. Students will work in teams matched with a real-world opportunity and advisor from a BigCo. Teams will then build and pitch a working product in three sprints culminating in a final presentation and demo. The class will include lectures and prominent guest speakers from the industry.

BigCos and their products and platforms are increasingly central to our lives, even if you’re a startup (think Gmail, AWS, iOS, and Google Cloud, just to name a few). Chances are you are using one or more BigCo products to read this post. There is a vibrant ecosystem of blogs, books, and information about the startup world but very little practical guidance out there about life in BigCos. We’re looking forward to covering the good, the bad, and the ugly of building products that matter in complex orgs. We’ll be sharing the dark arts of life in a BigCo that we spent the bulk of our careers learning the hard way.

I am particularly excited to be working on this with Bradley, whose professional expertise I respect deeply but also someone I love like a brother. We went through some serious wars at Yahoo! while having an incredible amount of fun. We last worked together in 2008 and since then, Bradley has gone on to run product for some of the most-used consumer products in the world at Google and I joined a little startup called Etsy and grew it into a BigCo. I can’t imagine partnering with someone more suited to the work and it feels like getting a band back together.

If your company is interested in working with our students, first read the How it Works and FAQ sections on the BigCo Studio page and feel free to reach out. If you’re a leader in a BigCo and there’s a topic you really wish students knew more about when they joined your company, let me know. My email is firstname.lastname@cornell.edu.

Saul Bellow on the news

Saul Bellow - It All Adds Up

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book but several years ago I picked up a collection of Saul Bellow’s essays, It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future. The title of an essay caught my eye — “The Distracted Public” — so I read it last night. Bellow’s comment on the news could have been written yesterday:

I confess that like millions of others, I still need my news fix daily. Civilized people evidently find it necessary to maintain, inwardly, a high level of excitement and are apt to feel that their vital forces must be replenished by headlines.

So it’s politics and murder, famine, planes exploding in flight, drug wars, hostage taking, the latest developments in the superpower drama. The average duration of a scandal or a disaster is not long, and since terrible events are presented by networks whose main focus is diversion, entertainment, quick change, we are always en route to the next shock. It is the agitation level that matters, not this or that enormity. And because we can’t beat distraction, we are inclined to join it. A state of dispersed attention seems to offer certain advantages. It may be compared to a sport like hand gliding. In distraction we are suspended, we hover, we reserve our options.

It’s a good essay largely about the role of the writer in lifting the rest of us above the “moronic inferno” (what an evocative phrase!) of modern life. Notably, this essay was written as a speech that was delivered in 1990, long before Twitter, long before Fox News, and long before the commercial Internet we know today. A lot has changed since then but maybe not as much has changed as we thought.

Six months with the Apple Watch

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Six months ago, I bought an Apple Watch. I had been doing some research for a talk I gave to a local economic development group in my hometown (“Technology, Craft, and Local Economies“) and had somewhat of a throwaway line about how we’ve gone from supercomputers that send people to the moon to computers that we wear. I did some Googling and came upon stories about Apple Watches saving lives. This expensive watch suddenly seemed a lot less inexpensive so I took the plunge somewhat half-heartedly since I’ve never been a watch person. The specific model I bought was the Apple Watch Edition GPS + Cellular, 42mm with Gray Ceramic Case (Series 3).

You can find deep reviews of the Apple Watch with a simple Google search so I’m just going to list some of the things I like most:

  • The watch. This is really mundane but a watch is really useful for my coaching work. I go to the client wherever they are. Some rooms have a clock and some don’t. As I started coaching, it seemed awkward to check the time on my phone. I didn’t want to be the guy digging in my pocket to check the time while a CEO was in the middle of explaining a difficult issue. At the same time, I have to keep myself and the client on schedule, so a watch is unusually helpful for the work I’m doing. The alarm on the Apple Watch is unobtrusive and I can use it to buzz when we have 5-10 minutes left in our session to make sure I focus on wrapping up and closing any remaining loops without interrupting the flow.
  • Heart monitoring. I mentioned the “Apple Watches saves lives” stories above that first caught my attention. A friend recently had a surprise diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF) after a trip to the emergency room with some unusual symptoms. He told me about the Apple Heart Study at Stanford. You install an app on your watch that looks for irregular heart rhythms and if you have one, the app will connect you to a doctor for further monitoring. I ran the app for weeks before getting an “all clear” from it. The Apple Watch can detect hypertension and sleep apnea. On a more mundane level, because your heart rate is being monitored whenever you wear the watch, you learn a lot about what makes your heart beat faster or slower. Jack Dorsey found, for example, that testifying in Congress raises one’s heart rate. In the initial period, I started to understand how mundane activities (taking stairs, running for the open subway door) affected my heart rate and how much cardiovascular exercise I was getting when I wasn’t officially “working out.”
  • Activity mindset. The “close your rings” mentality baked into the watch is incredibly motivating. If your rings aren’t closed for the day, you get a friendly alert (example: “A 5-minute brisk walk will close your Move ring.”) Quite often, I’ll jump up and walk around the living room or maybe around the block. On days when you close the rings early, it feels great. Some mornings I close all but my “stand” ring by 9am and I feel like I am truly winning at life.
  • Sleep tracking. Sleep tracking is an inexact science and there are lots of articles out there about why wearables aren’t completely accurate but in my experience they seem at least directionally accurate so you can see improvements even if the baseline isn’t exactly right. I’ve been using the Apple Watch to track sleep using AutoSleep. I wear the watch when I’m sleeping and it has helped me understand my sleep patterns better than I ever have. For a while, I would note anything unusual I did before going to bed and wake up to see how I had slept. For example, just one or two drinks in the hours before bed killed my deep sleep completely. Late dinners did the same thing. On the nights with no alcohol and a relatively early dinner, I got high quality sleep. I figured this out after a couple of months and I have never been more rested and aware of how specific behaviors affect sleep. I had always heard this but seeing it reflected in data from your own body is much stronger evidence.
  • Consistent workout monitoring. I try to go to the gym regularly and tend to use the elliptical machine and stationary bike. As anyone who does this knows, the calorie and heart rate readings you get on these machines can vary widely. With the watch, I just go to the Workout app on the watch and choose the activity and the watch takes care of the rest (and with WatchOS 5, automatic workout detection kicks in and the watch just “knows” what you’re doing). I used to take a photo of the screen on the workout machine when I was done and enter the numbers into a spreadsheet for tracking but now I just let the Health app keep track of it for the most part (though I still regularly dump the data from the Health app into a comma-delimited file using the QS Access app)
  • The ability to leave your phone at home. I have the version with cellular service built in so I can put my AirPods in my pocket, leave my phone at home, and run an errand without worrying about missing a call or a text.
  • Waterproof. You can wear it when swimming (I wore it in the ocean this summer) and in the shower.
  • Control volume on a Sonos from the shower. This seems almost silly but I LOVE this feature. I have a Sonos in the bathroom and I listen to music in the shower. Sometimes you just want to turn a song up and if your watch and the Sonos are on the same wifi network, you can do that by turning the knob (aka the “Digital Crown”) on the side of the watch.

When I bought the Apple Watch, I wasn’t sure I would like it. Six months later, I love it. I feel more informed about my day-to-day health and that has unquestionably made me healthier. I’m not sure how I lived without it.

A book that changed me: A People’s History of the United States

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Today is Columbus Day, a holiday that makes me think of one of the books that changed the way I view the world in a truly fundamental way (and a book not without its problems, which I note below). I first read this book when I was 19. The first pages were startling in their framing of Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New” World. From the outset, Columbus’ arrival is told from the natives’ point-of-view — something I had never considered up to that point:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?. . . .

. . . Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction:

Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful . . . the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals. . . .

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . .” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

From here, the book’s nearly 700 pages cover American history all the way through the Clinton presidency. The book has its critics, like Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg:

He says that Zinn’s desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.

I’m not a historian so I can’t comment on the accuracy or inaccuracy of specific parts of Zinn’s book. From a layman’s perspective, though, the opening of the book appears to quote primary sources (Columbus’ logs) so I feel comfortable setting aside the core critique at least for this section. Zinn’s work has been so politicized that I looked for other sources to corroborate his point-of-view on Columbus’ arrival and found this story from the Smithsonian which also includes quotes from Columbus’ logs:

Columbus had no doubts about how to proceed, either with the lovable but lazy Arawaks or with the hateful but industrious Caribs [the Arawaks’ enemies]. He had come to take possession and to establish dominion. In almost the same breath, he described the Arawaks’ gentleness and innocence and then went on to assure the king and queen of Spain, “They have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war, and very cowardly, so that a thousand of them would not face three. And they are also fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary, and you may build towns and teach them to go clothed and adopt our customs.”

It’s so easy to get into political/cultural wars when discussing these subjects but I think going in that direction can obscure an important lesson that should be universal. My takeaway from reading Zinn is that we can’t recognize Columbus without also telling the story of the Arawaks, even though it makes us uncomfortable. History provides no blank slates. In modern times, when we talk about the hot “new” neighborhood in town, we must also recognize and honor the people who have been displaced. When we lionize CEOs in the business press, we have to also recognize the stories of the workers in their companies and in the supply chains that enable their businesses.  It’s not always comfortable but any honest history should tell the whole story, and I’m grateful to Howard Zinn — even with his flaws — for opening my eyes to that perspective.

Blogging vs. Twitter

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Chris Shiflett and I were talking recently about blogging and how Twitter had sucked some of the life force of it out for both of us. Ideas that might have become blog posts were getting distilled down into 140 (and then 280) character tweets and something was lost in the process. Chris came up with a “tweet only links” philosophy (with some important exceptions) and I signed on. This is the essence of why in Chris’ words:

I’ve been blogging for more than 15 years, but I blogged far more in the first 5 years than in the 10 years since. While there are many factors, I think joining Twitter drove the decline of my blogging habit more than anything else. Now, if I have something to share, I’ll write a sentence or two on Twitter and be done. Twitter lets me scratch the itch.

If I have something to share going forward, my hope is that this commitment will compel me to blog about it. If I can’t take the time to explore a thought by blogging, I should link to someone else who has. Twitter can still be great for spreading ideas, but it’s not a particularly good home for them.

I love Twitter and have been using it since January 2007. It’s good for banter and (as Chris notes) spreading ideas but the core ideas have to live somewhere. As well-crafted as some tweet storms are, they essentially disappear into the ether after the signal-boosting stops. In June, I wrote a 14-part tweet storm about how to become a foster parent:

 

Unless you were watching me tweet on that day and were interested in becoming a foster parent at that moment, this tweet storm faded into the ether. It felt good to write and perhaps it inspired a person or two to take action, but it’s not a way really get the word out in a durable way. If I had blogged about it (and maybe I should), there’s a pretty good chance my post would show up in a Google search. I know this because after blogging for fifteen years, I still get emails about years-old blog posts but almost never get engagement on tweets that are more than a few days old. On Twitter, twelve hours ago is deep in the past and yesterday is ancient history.

I’m going to try to be more mindful about how I use Twitter vs. when I write things down in a blog post. There’s part of me that thinks we would all be better citizens of the web (and the world) if we adopted the philosophy that Chris laid out. We would have to think more about what we’re saying, string thoughts together more coherently, write them as if they will live on forever, and really commit. We would waste less time writing important but transient content that gets shoved aside in a matter of hours. We could write without worrying about Twitter’s policies or changes in the algorithm or the inability to change our minds by editing our original thoughts. We could fully own what we say in every sense of the word (this, of course, assumes blogging at a domain you own and Fred does a good job of explaining why that’s important).

It’s a totally selfish wish, but I also would love to see some of the dynamic new voices I see pouring their hearts and minds into Twitter write more long-form content in blogs. We need those voices and I worry that their considerable talents are muffled by putting so much work into content that is designed to be transient on top of all the work of defending yourself on Twitter. Twitter is a great complementary tool to writing and online engagement but it’s not the end unto itself if you want to create long-lasting, durable content on the web. I’m going to try to remember that going forward.

Comments are disabled. Feel free to respond my tweet about this post on Twitter.

Image credit: Todoran Bogdan

 

Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s

Oklahoma! cast

I serve on the board of St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and it’s one of the most gratifying things I do. I’ve been involved since 2014 but have gotten much more deeply involved over the past 18 months. Live theater can be an antidote to so much of what ails society right now — one of the few remaining shared experiences in an on-demand world. Studies have shown that the shared experience of live theater is so powerful that it can synchronize strangers’ heartbeats. I have such respect and admiration for Susan Feldman, who as the artistic director for St. Ann’s has been bringing amazing theater to NYC for almost 40 years now (here’s a nice profile of Susan in the NY Times in 2015). Seeing each season develop from “we’re thinking about bringing this to Brooklyn” to the actors on the stage on opening night of a show is an incredible experience. Every production starts with major risks and obstacles that must be overcome and there’s a real “show must go on” mentality to the work.

This season kicks off this year with Oklahoma! (tickets) which the NY Times listed as one of five shows to see in NYC this October:

From the story:

The version that St. Ann’s Warehouse is presenting at its Brooklyn home (through Nov. 11) was first seen in 2015 as part of the Bard SummerScape series north of the city. Directed by Daniel Fish, it is not only inclusive but also communitarian, featuring a dark interpretation, a diverse cast, an immersive staging — and a chili dinner during intermission.

I saw early sketches of the staging at a board meeting several months ago and “immersive” is right. I won’t spoil it with more details but check out the huge photo in the NY story mentioned above. And, yes, there is the chili dinner at intermission.

The show features Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays Laurey and was profiled in the Times yesterday:

Whether you love live theater or just want to try something new, go check out Oklahoma! Tickets are on sale now. See you at the show.