Soulitude: Facing the Monsters of Leadership
October is here. And with it movies where every character’s choices are questioned and grown adults scream at screens for someone “Not to go in there!” or “Don’t split up, dummies!” Interestingly enough, one of the most common themes of the horror genre is what’s called the “sneaky departure.” In this oft-used trope a main character, usually the hero of the story, sneaks away from the rest of the group because “this is something they have to do alone” or “they don’t want anyone else to get hurt.” Sometimes this character chooses to face the enemy or monster alone, with the rest of the group usually arriving just in time to show the value of teamwork and friendship. The movie IT is a recent example of this, with the monster Pennywise constantly seeking to separate the main characters from one another and to pick them off one at a time. It’s an effective storyline. Inspiring at times. Too bad it’s just not true. Community alone doesn’t defeat the monster. I know, of course, how this sounds. Community has become such a buzzword in the American church that it seems like the miracle suave for all our ills. And in many ways it is. So many of us are so very alone. But community is the cure for loneliness, NOT the cure for solitude. As Bonhoeffer warned us years ago, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”  In this way, the “sneaky departure” is at least half true as leaders will need to get away from the group if they are to serve them well.
Thus, Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin argue in Lead Yourself First that the need has never been more urgent for solitude, especially for a leader. According to them, the very “foundations of leadership are in jeopardy today” (xx). One is tempted to accuse them of hyperbole until they ably lead the reader through the ways in which solitude played a role in the leadership lives of such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John Paul II, Jane Goodall, Winston Churchill, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. These stories, alongside an impressive cache of modern practitioners of solitude, serve to bolster their claims quite well.
In this, Kethledge and Erwin don’t spend a lot of time making the case for solitude as much as letting solitude make the case for itself. For them, history teaches us that solitude is necessary and effective in at least four areas of leadership: clarity, creativity, emotional balance, and moral courage. Depending on your interests, some chapters and stories will strike you more than others. This in general is one of the great strengths of the book, the wide range of personalities and situations in which leaders applied solitude to their posts and problems. Military leaders, presidents, nonviolent protestors, CEOs, pastors, entrepreneurs, and more are featured here. In this way, Lead Yourself First truly does offer something for everyone.
The ideas in the book, however, focus on two types of solitude. One is a more analytical type in which the leader goes into solitude to focus on a certain problem, and the other is a more intuitive approach, something more akin to the Christian practice of contemplation. Kethledge and Erwin ultimately give several pointers at the end of the book on how and when to apply solitude that are very helpful in sorting through which of these might be most helpful for you and your circumstance. But for our purposes, we will focus on three stories that might be helpful with the particular monsters that ministers and church leaders have to face.
First, the monster of hyper-functioning. One of the great temptations of leadership, and church leadership especially, is to think that being available constantly is a good thing. For Kethledge and Erwin, this is not necessarily the case. In example after example, they show how history’s great leaders and great leaders today make explicit to their followers that they need time for solitude. To not do so, is disastrous not just for the leader, but for the organization. As they put it, “A hyper-functioning leader can’t listen, exercise judgment, or navigate complexity” (65). One leader that Kethledge and Erwin highlight, who just so happens to be a pastor, shares his story of using solitude to slow down and work through his emotions during a divisive season in his church (when everyone wanted his attention of course) then inviting two parties on opposite sides of an issue to come in and join him in the same practice. It’s a fascinating story of how one church leader used the practice of solitude to not only reduce his hyper-functioning, but to do the same for his congregants (65-67).
Second, the monster of hurt. If a minister stays around long enough, they will be hurt. The question is whether or not they will transform or transmit their pain. Kethledge and Erwin offer several examples of this, but one of the best is the story of Abraham Lincoln writing a letter that he ultimately never sent when frustrated over a particular military move that he thought could have ended the Civil War sooner and thus put an end to the nation’s suffering. This was done in a prolonged and intentional time of solitude. The lesson to be learned here is simply that the minister or church leader must find a way to name the frustration and hurt, even if confrontation is not in order, and sometimes it isn’t. As Kethledge and Erwin put it, “Every leader has her emotional limits and there is no shame in exceeding them. What distinguishes effective leaders from inferior ones, rather, is their ability to restore their emotional balance” (87). Thus, if the minister is in pain, it’s not just the minister who needs solitude, but the organization needs the minister to find balance in solitude to keep from transmitting their hurt to the congregation.
Finally, the monster of cowardice. Kethledge and Erwin would argue that most cowardice, or as they would call it, “soulless leadership,” or leadership without moral conviction, comes from a leader disconnected with their own values. One of the book’s highlighted leaders who leads fortune 500 companies, Doug Conant, says this, “Introspection helps ensure that my decisions are aligned with my principles. It’s life changing. And the only person who can have this conversation with yourself is you” (132). Kethledge and Erwin thus give example after example of people who fortified their convictions in solitude and thus were able to change the world. The frightening thing here is that, if they are right, cowardice is not something a leader is as much as what they become when they forget who they want to be. Any leader reading this right now might be encouraged to do the hard work of asking what kind of leader they want to be, what kind of character qualities and virtues that leader would have, and whether or not the choices they’ve been making line up. This is the kind of hard work that can only be done in solitude, and of all the monsters here it’s the hardest and scariest one to face. But face it you must. According to Kethledge and Erwin, the leader who wants such answers will surely have to have find them in solitude. And it’s there they learn to lead themselves first. It’s there they find their soul.
Imagine trying to lead your church without your soul. The horror.