Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Loneliness of the Alpha Male

William Deresiewicz opened his lecture on a promising note. Addressing the plebe class at West Point last year, he began by saying that his title did not make sense.

“Solitude and Leadership,” he said, contradicted each other.

In his words: “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.”

True enough, we do not think of alpha males brooding alone in their tents. We might think of the great warrior Achilles adopting that posture, but that only happened when he retired from the fray.

But, we do not think of solitude in romantic terms either. Being alone at the top does not even vaguely resemble what we would normally call solitude.

True enough, solitude can imply a contemplative attitude, but it also, and more often, involves feelings of loneliness, rejection, and abandonment.

If this is correct, then leaders do not function in solitude or isolation. They do not gain character by introspecting. If anything, they symbolize, in their person, the group they lead. That does not make you alone.

Comparing an alpha male with a social outcast is a piece of academic sophistry. I still find it difficult to understand how West Point could have extolled his efforts.’

If you read between the lines, you will discover that Deresiewicz believes that people become great leaders by undergoing therapy.

He doesn’t quite put it in those terms, and he hedges his bets, but his formula, translated into reality, would have young cadets retreat into their souls, to think for themselves, to discover their true being, in order to become effective officers.

It is almost too obvious to say, but the attitudes Deresiewicz is peddling here will not make for a more effective army.

Take the example of a leader who Deresiewicz does not mention: Alexander the Great. Alexander studied with Aristotle. We can be fairly confident that Aristotle did not teach him how to withdraw into his mind, but rather to apply his brilliant mind to the situation at hand.

Aristotle would have emphasized hard work, meticulous observation, painstaking analysis, and constant conversation with his staff and foot soldiers.

As every plebe quickly learns, the best way to learn how to lead is to learn how to follow. Without thinking very much.

Occasions arise where you do have to think about the virtue of what you are being ordered to do, but a soldier must first learn how to follow the leader. And to do so without hesitating, and without thinking it over.

Deresiewicz draws his lessons from fiction, from academia, and from the example of one great military leader. We should immediately be suspicious of his failure to consider a wider group of military commanders.

He begins with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the book that inspired the movie Apocalypse Now. Everyone knows that it is not a story of leadership success, but of a leader gone rogue.

Then, Deresiewicz compares the military to Yale University. To his mind they are both bureaucracies and all bureaucracies are roughly the same.

He believes that Yale and West Point are both in the business of producing leaders.

In this he is simply wrong. Universities are in the business of disseminating knowledge. You do not learn to be a leader by studying medieval poetry at Yale.

In the worst cases, a place like Yale is producing people who do well at reciting liberal pieties but who are barely functional in the world of work.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who manages a small department in a larger business. He explained that he had had unfortunately hired a couple of recent Yale grads.

Both were men. And both were burdened, to the point of being crippled, by the fact that they could barely apply themselves to their job. When questioned about their attitude, they explained that they had taken the jobs in order to find themselves.

They had certainly learned the value of solitude. They embodied the virtues that Deresiewicz told the plebe class were essential to leadership. And yet, they could barely complete the most minor task effectively. They knew nothing about working with other people, following instructions, doing their best work, or embracing the company mission.

They were finding themselves.

Does it matter that they were men? Indeed, it does. My friend informed me that women were far more competent and far more devoted to their work than were these male Yalies.

Deresiewicz is aware of this problem. So he quotes a passage from the Heart of Darkness where Marlow, the ship’s captain, thinks about finding himself.

He comments on it: “Now that phrase, ‘finding yourself,’ has acquired a bad reputation. It suggests an aimless liberal-arts college graduate—an English major, no doubt, someone who went to a place like Amherst or Pomona—who’s too spoiled to get a job and spends his time staring off into space.”

The phrase has acquired a bad reputation, deservedly. Humanities majors from major universities tend to be dysfunctional. The world has noticed.

Deresiewicz disparages people who can keep the system running and who can work within a world that relies on strict routines. Yet, when we look at young people who have never learned these skills, who have gotten trapped in their pseudo-intellectual solitude, we should recognize the value of keeping the routine going.

Actually, we have fewer and fewer people who know how to keep the system running smoothly. The problem is that too many people are too withdrawn into their own thoughts, not that they are too functional.

Deresiewicz tries to refute this argument by declaring that  a fictional character, Marlow is hard-headed. He adds that Conrad himself had been a ship’s captain, so he must be putting his own thoughts in Marlow’s mind.

This feels like it must be a joke. Unfortunately, Deresiewicz seems to believe it.

He does not recognize that a fictional character is not, by definition, real, and that the words an author puts in his mind or his mouth function within a fictional world, not within the real world.

In the real world, Deresiewicz tells us, most leaders are mediocrities. They got where they are by sucking up, not by achieving things.

Do you think that this will encourage a plebe class to respect its leaders? It might be true in the academy that people get promoted without having accomplished much of anything, but in the military, there is a reality check to your ideas and your leadership.

Military ineptitude exacts a very high price. Academic ineptitude does not.

Given his academic background, Deresiewicz seems to want leaders to be great intellectuals or great thinkers.

In his words: “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.”

He offers the example of 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.”

He continues: “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.”

As it happens, David Petraeus has a Ph. D. from Princeton.

And yet, everyone knows that today’s university system is violently opposed to anyone who thinks for himself. Try offering a slightly right-of-center opinion in an undergraduate course on an American campus today and you will be excoriated, perhaps even downgraded.

Universities are not in the business of training anyone to think for himself. They are about teaching students to parrot the politically correct party line.

Moreover, leadership is not about having a great idea. Leadership involves selling the idea and implementing it. If a leader cannot induce his staff or his unit to execute his idea effectively, he will not be a great leader. He should have stayed in academe.

Then again, do you really think that George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur were intellectuals? A serious leader would have learned from Aristotle that character is not based on what you think, but on what you do.

Does anyone become a leader by doing as Deresiewicz says: finding his own reality?

Leadership involves working with the reality at hand, negotiating with it, whether it is the team you command or the equipment available or the obstacles that stand in the way of your success.

Any leader who tries to find his own reality will be going there alone.

When it comes to solitary contemplation, Deresiewicz seems to want to have it both ways. He wants you to look inside your soul, the better to discover what you really believe and who you really are.

Of course, if you are a colonel you do not have to look inside your soul to know that you are a colonel. Your being is writ large in your uniform and your insignia.

No one solves problems by withdrawing from the world. You solve problems by becoming more actively engaged with reality. You do not find solutions in silent meditation but from conversation, communication with others, and the marketplace of ideas.

Apparently, Deresiewicz wants to enhance solitary contemplation with a special kind of conversation.

He writes: “So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.”

He adds: “Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person 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. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.”

Before going on, I will mention that if your leader talks to himself, be very skeptical of what he is saying. As for the kind of conversation Deresiewicz is touting, there is a word for it, and it isn’t friendship. It’s therapy. If you happen to make your way into the wrong kind of therapy you will be encouraged to speak ill of yourself, to express your doubts and questions. The activity is not going to give you confidence, courage, or focus. It can only demoralize you.

The first and still the best definition of friendship comes to us from Aristotle. Let’s assume that he was teaching it to his pupil Alexander the Great.

Aristotle wrote that friends seek the best in their friends, not the worst. Friends boost morale; they give you confidence and focus. They are not around so you can confess your doubts and insecurities.

If you find someone who is going to value you for being demoralized, how will you summon up the confidence and courage to inspire the morale of your unit, to the point where they can function as a group, not as a collection of solitary individuals?


The Ghost said...

for many, solitude has nothing to do with the proximity of other people ...

William Deresiewicz sounds so simplistic in his evaluation that I am shocked he is allowed to give talks at West Point. Surely they can find someone who has something of consequence to say ...

The Ghost said...

I would point out to Deresiewicz that "finding yourself" doesn't involve siting around waiting for "yourself" to reveal itself to you ... it comes from hard work and experience and only comes later in the process ...

The Ghost said...

I found that as a midshipman at the Naval Academy (1976-1980) some of the best lessons on leadership came from being a follower of BAD leaders. You never forget those lessons ...

David said...

Generally, people who are obsessed with "finding themselves" are demonstrating a lack of interest in the outside world. A genuine intellectual is interested in *something*, whether it is medieval poetry or the history of the Renaissance shipbuilding industry. Too often these days, the assertion of intellectualism is merely a claim to unearned social status.

Regarding the loneliness of the leader: there's a great passage in Nicholas Monsarrat's novel "The Cruel Sea." The captain of a WWII submarine vessel is given a sonar report on an enemy submarine in close proximity, at the same time he is attempting to rescue dozens of men in the water from a previous submarine attack. He must decide: drop a depth charge and (probably) destroy the submarine..which will also kill the men awaiting rescue...or save the men and leave the submarine to sink other ships.

"It was Ericson's decision alone. It was a captain's moment, a pure test of nerve; it was, once again, the reality that lay behind the saluting and the graded discipline and the two-and-a-half stripes on the sleeve. While Ericson, silent on the bridge, considered the chances, there was not a man on the ship who would have changed places with him."

David said...

...that was supposed to be "the captain of a WWII submarine-HUNTING vessel"

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately often in US Military, bureaucratic skills, smooth compliance (and now, advanced degrees) are needed to attain Command Ranks.

Such qualities are often antithetical to success in war. Thus, Patton was replaced by the plodding Bradley. Thus, "nation building" has been foisted on our troops.

... two US Commanders with a deep, mutually supportive friendship were Grant ("a drunk") and Sherman ("insane" - he predicted CW would take years) -- Rich said...

Well, I do not actually imagine it is likely to have success.