Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis for speaking out against them, summarized an important leadership duality this way in his book “Life Together”:
1) “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community”
2) “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
Being alone and being in community are a both-and reality.
Exceptional, high contribution leaders must engineer time alone. Let’s call that “Cave” time. Quiet reflection away from noise and bustle. Discernment about what is most important, most useful, and most helpful. Studying materials loaded with timeless principles, which transform our minds and hearts. Orient yourself to a trustworthy north star. Be reminded of both your smallness and your potential for greatness. Thinking through hard problems. Focused individual work (“deep work” as Cal Newport describes it). Self-leadership to “screw your courage to the sticking place” and act boldly.
Cave time is the antidote to “muchness, manyness, and noise” of contemporary life. Cave time anchors us in an environment awash with information, only a fraction of which is commendable.
Leaders must also be in community with people. There is no leadership apart from working with and through other people!
Many of us like the idea of people but don’t really like people. I think this partly why social media is so popular – you engage with a comforting idea of people yet can click away from real conversation and messy reality any time you like.
The danger for leaders today to think they’ve been interacting with people when it’s all email, LinkedIn, and teleconferences. If you are describing a group as the “distribution list,” or “audience,” or “they” then you are unlikely to be in genuine community with people. There’s a place for thoughts to be expressed or information to be shared digitally, but don’t confuse that with community.
Community is the antidote to getting lost in your own assumptions the inaccuracy of your internal PR which inflates your ego. Depression and discouragement are the hallmarks of people who deprive themselves of community. Community can be both the best and the worst of experiences; people throughout history have both longed for community and dreaded it.
You must engineer time to get out of the cave, even though the cave is crucial. You must be with genuine flesh-and-blood people, face to face, and revel in the messiness. You need friends and colleagues beyond your Facebook “friends” and LinkedIn “connections.” There are things you cannot learn in the cave, and things you cannot share in the cave. Community is not safe, but it’s good.
Most importantly, when you do come out of your cave, seek out the highest-quality people who will allow you to be in their presence. Don’t aim to be the smartest person in the room, or the person who is the most “together.” Seek people with whom you can be genuine and vulnerable. Be teachable even as you share what you know. Listen intently. Hang around this group until you stop hearing and learning new things.
Cave and community is a leadership rhythm, one supporting the other. Take note of your biases for spending time in one vs. the other, and consciously work to create a balance. I’m more comfortable in the cave, for example.
(Note: I’m indebted to Perry Marshall for some of the ideas discussed here. I highly encourage any leader or entrepreneur to engage with Perry.)