in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #333: Solitude & Leadership

About a year ago, I had cultural critic William Deresiewicz on the podcast to discuss, among other things, a speech he gave at West Point in 2010 on the power of solitude in making better leaders. It’s a powerful speech and my guest today is one of the individuals who was impacted by it. So much so that he spent seven years researching and writing a book on the intersection of solitude and leadership. His name is Mike Erwin and he’s the co-author of the book Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude

Today on the show, Mike and I discuss why solitude is more than just secluding yourself from other people, why it’s so hard to come by in the information age, and how leadership in our governments and businesses have suffered due to the lack of solitude. We then dig deep into specific benefits that solitude can give leaders by looking at case studies from history. Mike shares how solitude practices enabled Dwight D. Eisenhower to make big, analytical decisions like launching D-Day, helped Lawrence of Arabia and General Ulysses S. Grant come up with creative war strategies, allowed Abraham Lincoln to keep himself emotionally stable during the Civil War, and gave Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II the moral courage to stand up for what they believed in. We end our show discussing practical ways you can inject some more solitude into your own life, no matter how noisy and busy it is.

Show Highlights

  • What inspired Mike to write about solitude and leadership
  • What is solitude? Is it being out alone in the woods or on a mountaintop?
  • How to experience solitude even in a crowded coffee shop
  • How social media limits our thinking and ideation process
  • The downsides of being uber-accessible at all times
  • The ways in which solitude provides clarity
  • How solitude helped Eisenhower clear his mind about D-Day
  • The difference between analytical clarity and intuitive clarity
  • The importance of giving your brain regular breaks
  • How solitude can make you more creative
  • What Lincoln and Grant can teach us about solitude and emotional stability
  • Solitude and Stoicism
  • How solitude builds our moral courage
  • Brass tacks tips for injecting more solitude into your life

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Lead yourself first by michael S. erwin and raymond M. kethledge, book cover.

If you enjoyed my conversation with Bill Deresiewicz about solitude and leadership, you need to pick up a copy of Lead Yourself FirstMike Erwin and Judge Kethledge do a fantastic job fleshing out Bill’s original idea with lessons from history, as well as brass tacks advice on how to implement those ideas. 

Connect With Mike Erwin

Mike on Twitter

Team RWB

The Positivity Project

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Well, about a year ago, I had cultural critic William Deresiewicz on the podcast to discuss, among other things, a speech he gave at West Point in 2010 on the power of solitude in making better leaders. It’s a powerful speech and my guest today is one of the individuals who was impacted by it. So much so that he spent seven years researching and writing a book on the intersection of solitude and leadership. His name is Mike Erwin and he’s the co-author of the book Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.

Today on the show, Mike and I discuss why solitude is more than just secluding yourself from other people, why it’s so hard to come by in the information age, and how leadership in our governments and businesses have suffered because of its lack. We then dig deep into specific benefits that solitude can give leaders by looking at case studies from history. Mike shares how solitude practices enabled Dwight D. Eisenhower to make big, analytical decisions like launching D-Day, helped Lawrence of Arabia and General Ulysses S. Grant to come up with creative war strategies, allowed Abraham Lincoln to keep himself emotionally stable during the Civil War, and gave Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II the moral courage to stand up for what they believed in. We end our show discussing practical ways you can inject some more solitude into your life, no matter how noisy and busy it is.

It’s a great show. Gets high-level, but also gets brass tacks. You’re going to want to take notes. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at

Mike Erwin, welcome to the show.

Mike Erwin: Hey. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited.

Brett McKay: So you wrote a book that I really loved, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. Before we get into the power of solitude in making us better leaders, can you tell us a little about your background?

Mike Erwin: Sure. Absolutely. I’ve got a bit of a eclectic background in terms of where I’ve been involved with various leadership efforts, but I graduated from West Point, the United States Military Academy, in 2002. September 11, 2001, that was the start of my senior year. I ended up branching military intelligence as a result of that. Served 13 years on active duty and part of that journey was I was deployed to Iraq once, Afghanistan twice, in support of the 1st Cavalry division in 3rd Special Forces Group, and then I was selected to go back to graduate school en route to become an assistant professor back at West Point. So I studied positive psychology at the University of Michigan under one of the co-founders of the field. Then I went and I taught leadership and psychology for three years and then I wrapped up my time on active duty at Special Operations Command down in MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

Since then, I’ve been leading this nonprofit called The Positivity Project and our mission is to empower America’s youth to build strong relationships by recognizing the good in themselves and others. Basically, a focus on character and how can we more effectively as adults and especially as teachers instruct students on what character is so they see the good in themselves, but more importantly in other people.

I guess that’s it. The final thing is that I’m the founder and serve on the board of directors for a veteran’s support nonprofit called Team Red, White, and Blue whose mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to the people in their community through physical and social activity.

I got involved in various efforts at various degrees and capacities, but very driven by this notion of servant leadership and how can I as a leader, as often as possible, be working to improve the lives of people around me.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome. What an impressive CV you have there. For those of you interested, we actually interviewed J.J. from Team RWB about the program, what they do. So if you guys want to check that out, just Google “Art of Manliness Team Red, White, and Blue”. You’ll find that podcast interview. It’s a really good one. You co-authored this book with Judge Raymond Kethledge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, as well.

Mike Erwin: Yeah. Absolutely. A bit of real brief background on that is that I was a graduate student at Michigan studying positive psychology and that’s really when this whole journey began. Read a powerful article that was actually a speech given at West Point back in 2009 and it really prompted this reflection about what an important subject it is to think about the role of solitude in leadership. Obviously, the world is only noisier and more crowded than ever today than it was back then, but even back in 2010, we felt, wow, there’s such a huge need for people and especially leaders to spend some time engaging with this thesis and this message.

It took quite a long time. It was a journey of perseverance to be able to produce the book. A lot of reading of history and a lot of interviews with contemporary leaders and analysis and sort of putting it all together into a coherent package. Then also getting, obviously, a top-rate publisher like Bloomsbury to be interested in it and then work with us along the way to make something that was good significantly better. Really happy with how it turned out and looking forward to sharing some of the thoughts with your community.

Brett McKay: Was that West Point speech given by Bill Deresiewicz?

Mike Erwin: It was. Yeah. So it was, yeah, given to the plebe English class in the fall of 2009. I actually reached out and contacted him and told him what a powerful speech it was and what a powerful article it was. He was the one who sort of encouraged me to, “Hey, if you want to go deeper on this, you know, I suggest you write a book on it.” I had a general idea of what a significant undertaking it was, but did not think that it would take seven years from that conversation to publication, but it was. That was the article that went viral, which still, if you Google “solitude and leadership”, it’s been viewed millions of times over these past seven, eight years since the article came out and it’s still, I re-read it once a while because it’s really inspirational.

Brett McKay: For those of you interested, we actually interviewed Bill a while back ago. It’s episode #261 if you want to check that out. We talk a little bit about his speech, but he wrote a book about Jane Austen, what you can learn about Jane Austen. We talk about that too.

Let’s get to your deep dive into solitude. The speech that you read had a big impact on you. I’m curious, besides that moment, were there other moments where you experienced first-hand that solitude? Well, let’s do this first. Before we talk about that, how do you define solitude? I think when most people think what solitude is, it means you’re like a monk. You’re by yourself. You’re not around anyone. You seclude yourself. Is that how you define solitude or is it something else?

Mike Erwin: Yeah. No. Obviously, as you’ve read the book you know that we really define it in a very different way. While you can achieve solitude, certainly, on top of Mt. Rainier or out in the woods for days at a time on your own, that’s certainly an extreme sort of a five standard deviation from the mean opportunity for solitude. We really define it as when the mind isolates itself from the input from other minds and works through a problem and works through thoughts on its own.

The case that we make is we define solitude is that you can achieve solitude much more readily and consistently even when you’re surrounded by people in a place like, say, a Starbucks or a coffee shop or when you’re somewhere out and about, you have the capacity as long as you are isolating your mind from the thoughts and the ideas from other people. At the same time, you could be on your own on the top of Mt. Rainier and if you’ve got access to wifi and you’re reading articles and you’re reading what people are pushing out on Twitter, we really don’t define that as solitude. It’s much more a subjective definition of when the mind isolates itself from the input from other minds.

Brett McKay: I mean, I guess you kind of answered it there, the thing that makes solitude so hard these days is that we have so much input coming to us through social media feeds, news feeds, etc.

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. I don’t think this requires much of a case to be built. For most of us, I think we all to some extent feel the crush of the information age. Ray and I often refer to it as the input age. There’s just all these inputs that come into our mind actively and passively, whether we deliberately go listen to a podcast or read an article or a book, or if it’s just passive and you’re driving down the road and you have the radio on or you see billboards, all these various inputs that just sort of just filter into our brain and they influence our thought process and they influence what we think about. Essentially, are we focused on these big questions, especially as leaders, or are we distracted to no end from one minute thinking about what an advertisement tells us about a pair of shoes and the next minute listening to talk hosts go back and forth about the NBA finals?

There is just so much input in the world today that technology and especially social media have made just so consistent in terms of the stream into our lives.

Brett McKay: Right. I think that the social media one is the most insidious because, well, I’ve noticed too is that social media, I think it changes the way you … People often use it like, “Oh. I’m just like testing ideas out there.” But you really can’t test all your ideas because some people might not like that idea and they’re going to raise holy hell and try to get a Twitter mob after you because they don’t like that idea, so you hold back. You can’t really experience or experiment with different ideas completely.

Mike Erwin: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: That can limit you.

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. No. You hit on a really important point. I think it does limit you. When you think about sort of the arc or leadership and how accessible people and especially leaders have been throughout history, very often leaders were difficult to get ahold of. They had a lot of time, not even necessarily because they made a deliberate choice, but they carved out time, which essentially was solitude, for them to think and to refine their ideas. Again, just with the over accessibility that people have to us today, whether it’s finding us on social media or reaching out via email and setting up meetings and requesting time and it’s just all those things. Again, there’s some real benefit that comes from that, but there’s just this other side that I think that we lose and we try to call attention to that in the thesis of the book, which is that there is a downside to being very accessible and to not having that space and that time to really think and do that inspired and heavy-lifting on your own. That’s just a big thing that we’re trying to call attention to.

Brett McKay: Besides the speech, the Bill Deresiewicz that kind of kicked us off, have you had any first-hand experience where you saw the lack of solitude hinder your leadership or maybe the leadership of other people or where you saw how solitude actually enhanced your leadership capabilities?

Mike Erwin: Yeah. Absolutely. The short answer to that question is that was really the bigger inspiration behind the book was obviously the article was the genesis of sort of the thoughts and the conversation with Ray and I, but it was ultimately seeing first-hand the power of solitude as leaders in our own lives that really is what drove us to invest over six years of research and effort into producing this book.

For me, really, it came down to a couple of places going back to combat and down range. I was an intelligence officer so I was not out there on the front lines in all the danger that the troops that I supported were. With that came a little bit of emotional sort of guilt, I think, but also with that my job was to filter through a lot of different reports, signals intelligence, human intelligence, imagery, sources. What was on the open-source internet? Like all these inputs. As technology was getting better in Iraq in ’04 and eventually in Afghanistan in ’06, ’07, and ’09, when I was deployed there, that did increase the flow of information that I was made aware of and so I personally experienced in both theaters the real benefit as a leader to practice solitude.

In Iraq, I would walk back and forth to the dining facility most of the time on my own, even in the really hot times in the summer. I found it to be a place where I really centered myself emotionally and grounded myself, but also, where I was able to filter through all the intelligence reporting that was kind of coming through the computer and it gave me that time, even though it was really hot and frankly, not an enjoyable walk because it was close to a mile in each direction, I felt it was that restorative and that important to me that I made that walk on my own.

Then in Afghanistan, I was the intelligence office in support of Green Berets that had basically half of the country so I was responsible for understanding the state of the insurgency and what was going on for, basically, seven of the 16 provinces in Afghanistan. Once again, I found it critical to be able to step back and so I would typically do is towards the end of the day, I would go for a run at night just around our compound. It was less than half a mile around and I would just do laps kind of like running around a track. I found that time so beneficial to me where I was able to make sense of and gain insights and clarity to what the insurgency was going to try to do next because I had been spending all day long in front of a computer reading all these reports, talking to people on the phone, getting various inputs from higher headquarters, and just all these inputs. It wasn’t, very often, until I spent that time later in the evening when it was quiet and on my own that I was able to actually connect the dots and piece everything together.

From a very personal standpoint, by the way, these experiences were still very fresh and sort of raw for me, especially coming out of Afghanistan. We started writing this book less than a year, nine months basically, after I left Afghanistan. It was definitely very personal to me.

Brett McKay: Let’s dig into some of the specific benefits of solitude and different solitude practices. Like you said, you guys researched the heck out of this thing and got a lot of great case studies from history. The first benefit you guys dig into is that solitude can bring clarity. You break that into two types of clarity. There’s analytical and intuitive clarity. What’s analytical clarity?

Mike Erwin: Yeah. This was something that, honestly, we did not know prior to doing all the research and doing our own analysis. Basically, analytical clarity is the type of clarity that you achieve when there is, like I was facing in Afghanistan, an intense volume of information and ideas that are coming your way, whether it’s from your staff, through technology, email, social media, reports, whatever it is. There’s just a lot of it and you have to make sense of that to make a decision. Ultimately, unless you’re willing to do the heavy lifting and to do that hard and uncomfortable thinking, the kind of thinking that makes your head hurt, that you’re ultimately, most of the time, not going to make the best decision because you have not given weight to all the various data and input. That is analytical clarity. Essentially, doing the heavy lifting and the hard thinking.

Brett McKay: All right. Thank you. This reminded me a lot of, I don’t know if you’re familiar with a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Mike Erwin: Yes. Absolutely. Incredible book.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I love how the case he makes is that a lot of people think that the way you have to thrive and be successful in this new social media world, information world, be really adept at information and getting as much information as possible. He says, “No, what’s going to set you apart is the people who can think long and hard about really hard things. That’s rare.”

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. I think the research is even bearing that out. We know that when people are distracted they’re 5 to 15 IQ points less intelligent. Some of the work that’s been done by some folks out of Stanford and other places have really referred to this idea that when you’re in this constant state of distraction, you really don’t have the muscle that is required to do that deep work and to focus. Not only do you become a sucker for irrelevancy … The analogy that I use when I talk about this is, if you want to go out and run a five minute mile, you need to have trained so that your legs, your lungs, your heart, and your mind all have the capacity to endure what you need to do to run that five-minute mile.

I think it’s the same thing when you talk about doing deep work and heavy, hard analytical thinking, you can’t just sit there and flip on a switch and say, “Okay. Well. I’m going to think really hard about this right now,” when you haven’t thought really hard about your leadership decisions that you need to make in a month or two months. You’re not going to go out there and run that five-minute mile and I don’t think you’re going to arrive at the best analytical conclusion if you have not continued to work those connections in your brain that you require to do that heavy, analytical thinking.

Brett McKay: You use Dwight Eisenhower as a case study in the power of solitude with analytical thinking. What can Eisenhower teach us, particularly, his experience with D-Day, about how solitude can bring analytical clarity to us?

Mike Erwin: Yeah. Absolutely. Obviously, we lead off the book talking about Eisenhower for lots of reasons, but when you think about the scope of that leadership decision that he had to make at the end of the day, he had all these admirals and generals from different countries weighing in and giving their two cents about when they should go, but when you think about all the data that they had to sift through, the illumination at night, the tide because the Germans, obviously, had mined the ocean to limit or to slow down an assault from the UK, the wind, the weather, the 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne Divisions had to be able to jump in behind enemy lines and there had to be a certain amount of illumination. There’s so many factors that they had to take into consideration, but then, in the moment, the decision, on June 4th and 5th or do we go on June 6th, 1944 or not, ultimately, that decision rest on one man’s shoulders. His.

He talked about how all the input from all these generals and all these other people coupled with all the other data and the information to sift through was really just overwhelming. Not only did he have a practice of writing out his concerns and his ideas to get his thoughts straight, oh by the way, is a very big extrovert and somebody who was chosen for the role of Supreme Allied Commander because he had the ability to build relationships and spend time with people, but then the biggest thing was, as we talk about in the book, is just before the decision had to be made, he spent about 10 minutes just sort of quietly thinking and overlooking the channel and overlooking out towards the ocean and he really sort of pieced it all together. That’s when he turned around and said, “It’s on. We’re going.”

Again, powerful, super high-stakes decision, obviously, and he knew that regardless of the decision he made that a lot of men were going to die, but that was just such an inspirational and powerful example of solitude’s role in a moment like that when you have to make that big decision.

Brett McKay: Yeah. One of my most favorite parts from that section was how you guys highlighted that practice of his of writing himself memos. No one else saw these things. He just wrote them out for himself and he was basically analyzing, talking through a problem for himself so he could get his mind around the issue.

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. He did this so consistently starting with, as we talk a little bit about, when General Marshall summoned him to come to the Pentagon after Pearl Harbor. He asked him, like, “Hey, General.” You know, at the time, geez, he was a colonel. “Hey, Colonel Eisenhower, what do you think we should do?” Instead of just launching into his response, he said, “Can you give me a couple of hours to flesh out my thoughts?”

He once again stepped back, wrote his thoughts down, and got very clear on his recommendations for how he would proceed and I think that moment, while we don’t have direct proof of it, I think it had a huge impact on Marshall’s decision to promote Eisenhower so quickly because, again, he was a Lieutenant Colonel up until 1941, March of 1941. He went from a lieutenant colonel to a five-star general in under 36 months and most of those promotions were made by Marshall.

I think that Marshall was probably very impressed by the fact that he flew him all the way up to the Pentagon and rather than just responding, he said, “Can you give me some time to put this all out and put it on paper?” That was obviously a practice that he took forward to Africa in 1942 and Italy in 1943 and then in 1944 and 1945 as Supreme Allied Commander.

Brett McKay: When should you take an analytical approach with your solitude? Is it just when there’s lots of information and you’re trying to get your head around it and trying to make something coherent out of it?

Mike Erwin: I think so. I think that’s the most clear time when we benefit from solitude in terms of the analytical clarity piece. I think that no matter where you’re at in the world today, there’s going to be a majority of situations where you find yourself with a lot of information. The question becomes how do you identify those moments as a leader that really require it. There is a cost. There’s a cost of time and energy and if you do step back and say, “Look. I need a couple of hours to step back. There’s a lot of information flowing into my mind right now and I need some time.” You are saying no to other things and so I don’t think you can, as a leader, necessarily be in analytical clarity through solitude mode all the time because part of leadership, and we talk about this towards the end, is building relationships with people and interacting and being out there and seen. That is a part of leadership as well.

I do think you have to be clear on what situations warrant that deliberate pause and reflection, at the end of the day, or sometimes in the middle of the day, to really do that heavy thinking on your own, outside the input of other people on your staff or who work for you.

Brett McKay: Let’s go to the other type of clarity, intuitive clarity. What’s that?

Mike Erwin: Yeah. The other side of clarity, which in many cases is the flip side of the coin, is what we defined as intuition or intuitive clarity. This is, in many ways, this idea where there’s so much information, just like when you’re talking about analytical clarity, it’s the same situation. There’s so much information coming and there’s a lot of data, there’s a lot of things to consider, but rather than actively doing that hard, heavy thinking and heavy lifting, it’s the opposite. You quiet your mind down and you allow your self, essentially, to listen to yourself. You listen to your gut, to your instincts, to your intuition. Call it what you will.

One of the things we point out there is that to really be able to listen to that voice of intuition, it’s a delicate voice and you need to reduce some of the inputs and quiet the mind so that you can really be in tune with that intuition. Once again, same thing, lot of data, lot of information. It’s really the process of how you arrive at the outcome. Some situations, they require that heavy analytical thinking to come to that decision, especially as a leader. Whereas intuition, it’s more “How do I quiet so much of the noise down so that I can make the best decision that I know is the best decision? Not from the result of heavy lifting thinking, but from sort of tapping into that side of my mind which has the answer if I can quiet everything else down.”

Brett McKay: Right. That’s probably what was going on with your runs. A lot of intuitive clarity coming on. You had all the information-

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think this is the case with a lot of people because, as I mentioned before, Ray is much more of an analytical clarity guy, my co-author. As a federal judge, he has to sort through tons of legal opinions and tons of data and that ultimately has to bring it together into his own piece, into his own opinions, and those opinions lead and shape and influence policy and influence lots of lives. Ray is much more, I think, of an analytical clarity and I am more of an intuitive clarity where when I can step back from it and quiet things down, some of these connections start to occur and I’m like, “Ah. Yes. That is what I need to do,” or “I need to present the information to the Colonel like this.”

So absolutely, when I’m able to do that on those runs that I have gone on for years, it serves as that perfect place to just quiet the mind and then allow those intuitive pieces of information and decisions to surface.

Brett McKay: Yeah. There’s research out on this. I think you highlighted this in the book. A lot of that intuitive clarity comes in moments when you’re not thinking about the thing. You’re taking part in some other activity. So running is one. Walking. The shower. You know, the ideas you get in the shower? Things where your brain’s basically kind of resting and then it’s sort of working in the background on these ideas you’ve been mulling over.

So if you want that intuitive clarity, I guess the idea is go do something where your brain, just take a break.

Mike Erwin: Yeah. Absolutely. People ask me those questions as well. Like, “Ah, well. Where do you find, you know, your time for that?” It’s things like mowing the lawn. My big thing now is I like pulling weeds. I live at a house where there’s a lot of weeds and they need to be picked a lot. I go out there and, again, rather than sometimes bring my whole family out there to do it with me, I just go out there on my own and it becomes very sort of meditative in many ways where I emerge and I stand up with two new ideas or solutions that I need to bring to life.

So, absolutely it is very often not just sitting there, but it’s often doing something that will take some of your focus off, but still allows that intuition to surface.

Brett McKay: The other benefit of solitude that you guys argue is that it can increase creativity. I thought this was counterintuitive because we often think of creativity as the way you’re creative is you take these ideas that are out there, you mix them together, and then you have a new idea and you come up with a new solution. It seems like secluding yourself can make you less creative because you’re limiting the input, the ideas you work with.

How can solitude make you more creative?

Mike Erwin: I think that, for sure, what you just alluded to, this idea of collaboration and the power of bringing in lots of different ideas from different people is a part of the creative process, and it is, especially for a lot of leaders. What I think that we have tried to highlight and call attention to the role of creativity is that very often to connect the dots that are out there, all these different inputs and different ideas from other people, it does require that same sense of stepping back and thinking about it on your own because there’s definitely times when the group might come up with a more creative solution. But what we’ve seen throughout history and when you look at inventors and you look at people who have founded nonprofits and founded organizations and companies, very often, a lot of times, it’s been done, like, the sole idea, the creative thought to bring forward an organization that serves this purpose or builds this product is a solitary act. It’s the work of really one person.

Of course, now, to bring that to life it requires a whole bunch of people, but when it comes down to the creativity and thinking completely outside the box or in a new way, often, we know that groupthink occurs when people are together and they often will kind of reinforce each other’s ideas or quote/unquote build off of ideas or let me piggyback on that or dovetail on this. While it might seem counterintuitive, I think there’s a really strong case to be made, and we try to make it through the book and through the interviews with people and profiling T.E. Lawrence and some other people, that creativity can really spawn from that solitude and those periods where because the group thinks together and might do some thinking along the similar plain together, that actually when one person steps back from it all that they might emerge with a fundamentally different way of doing something or fundamentally new idea.

I think that a lot of times, especially as a leader, coming up with a creative solution to a problem the answer is not to bring in a whole team of consultants or turn it over to your staff to come up with a course of action development, sometimes the answer is just stepping back and thinking hard on it on your own.

Brett McKay: Right. One of my favorite chapters, everything was great, but one of my most favorite ones was the idea of solitude bringing us emotional stability. I loved the two case studies you had. It was Lincoln and Grant. What lessons could be learn from Lincoln on the power of solitude in giving us emotional stability?

Mike Erwin: Yeah. I mean, think about the toll that the Civil War was taking on his emotions. We can’t even fathom, I think, just how intense the daily emotions that he experienced were. Certainly, those who’ve read about him in biographies and seen the movie, you know just how difficult the Civil War was for him to process. The particular instance when he was really frustrated with General Meade and in general just with the Union Army and their lack of aggressiveness to, hopefully, win the war, especially after the Battle of Gettysburg, he was at this point where he was just so emotionally distraught. When he did, in many similar ways to Eisenhower, he wrote a letter to General Meade and the analogy here I use is very often in today’s world, this would be like the idea of writing an email but not hitting send. He wrote this letter, but rather than giving it to the courier and dispatching it to the front lines, he just never sent it. It gave him this capacity to reframe the problem and reframe the challenges. As we talked about in that chapter, is that really the very next day he was just in a much better emotional state following the time when he was able to step back and think about this on his own and write the letter.

I think that most of us can relate to this in the world today. When you get that initial email or something that’s frustrating or that really bothers you and you might immediately write a response to somebody, but when you step back and you don’t hit send, when you come back and you look at that email later that night or the next day, at least for me, I delete it 95 times out of 100. I just say there’s just no need for me to say this and certainly not in this vehicle via email. I think that there’s a lot that we can take and directly apply in our own lives, especially in a world today that’s so governed by our emotions and anger and rage.

What Lincoln, though it was over 150 years ago, can teach us is the power of stepping back from a situation when you feel your emotions are primed and your emotions are just unhealthy or they do not have you in the right psychological frame of mind to respond in a way that, as a leader, you want to, to step back because it can give you that emotional balance you need.

Brett McKay: Right. I think you’re right that social media really feeds on our anger.

Mike Erwin: Big time.

Brett McKay: I think it’s what gets a lot of leaders in trouble is that they have easy access to the stuff, so once they feel anger … Anger is really hot and it’s a fast dissipating emotion. It comes on strong and heavy, but then it goes away pretty fast.

Mike Erwin: Yes.

Brett McKay: And so, social media is like, “Okay. I can do something.” Anger’s all about making you do something and you usually end up sending an email or tweeting something stupid that you end up regretting later on. If you had just practiced some solitude, get away from that input, you probably would create less problems for yourself.

Mike Erwin: I love how you just described that. Anger, things like that, they come on hot and heavy and it’s really intense in that moment.

That’s one of the things that we say is that solitude can really serve as a powerful force to sort of dilute the intensity of the emotions that you feel. It’s not just anger. It’s obviously other emotions as well, but anger is the one for sure that in the world today, it reminds me of one of those memes where it’s a guy sitting at a computer and typing. He’s talking to his wife, “Hang on, honey. I’ll be in the bed in a few minutes. I’m busy arguing with a stranger on the internet.” And thinking through how often, obviously, hopefully, leaders aren’t engaged in debates with strangers they don’t know on the internet a lot, but regardless, the more we open ourselves up to information and things going on in the world, the more we open that aperture for things that are going to frustrate us or make us angry. Again, there is a real time and energy cost to our ability to think and to make good decisions when that’s the case.

Brett McKay: I think Eisenhower did something similar. He had a temper, something he struggled with his entire life, but he had this practice if someone ticked him or there was some situation that ticked him off, he’d write it on a piece of paper and then put it at the bottom of the drawer and just tell himself, “Okay. I’m done with that. I got that out of my system.” And he would move on with his day.

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. Yeah. We talk a little bit about that even in the Eisenhower chapter. That’s one of the things about the book is that, as you know, there is a lot of intersection. As you think about in General Grant, while he also used solitude to fortify his emotional balance during and around the Battle of Vicksburg, he also really showed creativity as well through solitude where his staff sort of asked him, “Hey, General, what can we do to help you out here?” And he said, “Just leave me the hell alone.”

Really, he came up with a very creative solution to how the Union Army would eventually succeed after many failures in the Battle of Vicksburg. Solitude fortified his emotional balance, but it also had a big impact on creativity where he came up with a completely outside the box solution.

And so to bring it back to Eisenhower, as you said, while we talk about him in analytical clarity, it also played a role in emotional balance to include how he dealt with General Patton and other people who would certainly ruffle his feathers.

Brett McKay: The section on Grant about emotional stability, I’ve been reading more and more. I feel like Grant’s getting some more attention lately. I think it’s good because this guy was incredible. He wasn’t ostentatious. A lot of people whenever they met him for the first time confused him for a regular soldier because he wore regular soldier clothes, but the guy was stoic. You highlight in the book, his stoicism came from that solitude that he practiced on a regular basis.

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. When you think about, again, the caliber of decisions that he was making. Again, it’s not like today where we had access to all this information. The Mississippi River was so important in terms of a line of communication and just time and time again the Union Army failed to be able to free that up. Again, that stoicism that you referred to, eventually, of course, we all know about Grant and Sherman and how they worked together in the March to the Sea and just eventually what became so important to ending the Civil War. It was, in many ways, that stoicism and that perseverance that he had and he achieved a lot of that through the solitude.

Again, it’s a very different era today as a general back then versus now, but it was that reflection often just chomping on his cigar late at night and thinking about, “Well, how are we going to crack this nut because what everyone has tried.”  You know, you can’t just assault Vicksburg and just push the Confederates off the high ground. You have to get creative.

It actually reminded me of a story from my 2006 and ’07 deployment to Afghanistan where there’s this place outside of Kandahar City called the Reg desert and the Taliban had a real strong grip on this place called Zharie Panjwai right outside of Kandahar City. They were prepared for anybody who would essentially try to assault and try to clear it from north to south off of Highway 1. What we saw happen is some of our special forces teams and their Afghan partners actually went through the Reg desert and took seven days to go through the desert moving 10, 12, 15 kilometers a day, vehicles constantly getting stuck, but eventually when they hit Zharie Panjwai, they arrived from the south and completely took the Taliban by surprise and, frankly, allowed us to kind of turn the tide in the Kandahar Province for that next 12 to 18 months. It reminded me so much of the very bold and creative decision that General Grant made about how the union army was going to take that high ground in Vicksburg, which eventually played a huge role in the successful outcome of the Civil War.

Brett McKay: I mean, I also like how you focus on that leaders, they need to make time for solitude so they can have that emotional release by themselves, not in front of the folks they’re leading. You talk about how Grant did that. Even though he’s stoic most times, there was this moment where he just had to go to his tent, and it sounds like he just basically bawled his eyes out because of the situation. But then he got it out of his system and the next day he was bright and chipper and people were inspired by him, but they didn’t see that. He went out of his way to make sure that people, his soldiers, didn’t see him in that state.

Mike Erwin: Yeah. That’s why we call that chapter Catharsis. Funny enough, my mom having read the book said, “I just learned a new word. I never knew what catharsis meant.” It’s this really powerful word and that is what happened and when you think about that juxtaposed, especially in the world today, we also know there’s a lot of power, Brene Brown does a lot of work around vulnerability and how there are times as a leader that you really need to be vulnerable around the people that you’re leading, but I think there’s a really strong case for it as well that people need to know that their leaders, to some extent, have got it together, not just intellectually, but emotionally, especially when you’re doing things that involve stakes that are as high as people’s lives on the line. The idea of a general or someone just losing it front of the troops, especially back then, I think it would have really instilled more fear and the fact that they didn’t see that and instead they saw this revived, energized leader with this creative solution emerging from the tent was really powerful and an example of something I think we can all learn from that there is a time to be vulnerable and share your insecurities as a leader, but there’s also times when you need to know that people are taking their cues off of you and you need to make sure that you can go through that catharsis on your own if need be.

Brett McKay: You argue also that solitude can bring us moral courage. How so?

Mike Erwin: This is the part that we close the book and I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit about some of these stories and I’d be interested to hear what ones resonated the most with you, but three just powerful preeminent leaders in Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II are the three historical figures. Of all of them, we put moral courage at the end because we believe that ultimately, certainly while clarity and creativity and emotional balance are all very important for leaders in achieving that through solitude is a great vehicle, that we felt that ultimately, at the end of the day, one of the things that leaders are called to do is often make unpopular decisions to not conform to, perhaps, the smooth path that’s been set before them and ultimately to instill that same sense of courage in the people that follow them.

What drove and first jump started this chapter was without a doubt Winston Churchill. Ray was a history major at the University of Michigan. He’s read all the books on Churchill repeatedly and immediately this story jumped out to him as being a really powerful example of how Churchill and his practices late at night and how he would spend so much time inside his own mind really fortified his moral courage, not just on the Parliament floor in some of his riveting speeches, but in his decision-making process. That really jump started the research process that allowed us to uncover the power of solitude for Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II as they led the Civil Rights movement and the resistance against communism in Europe.

We kind of viewed his as one of the ultimate responsibilities of leadership is to have moral courage in times when it is necessary. Again, that stemmed from all the knowledge about Churchill.

Brett McKay: As you said earlier, these things kind of interweave with each other and I think one of the reasons why solitude can bring you moral courage is going back to that creativity aspect. You’re stepping away from the group and the group might be thinking, “This is a great idea.” Solitude, getting away from that allows you to think, “No. Actually this is a better idea,” or “This is what we really need to do,” and allows you to stand up for that when you need to like these three guys did.

Mike Erwin: Absolutely. When you think about, once again, how high the stakes were for all three of them it was incredible. I think this is why, as you know from having read the book, we also interviewed a lot of contemporary leaders, some of them well-known, people like General McChrystal and Brene Brown and Bill George, but then also a lot of people that most people have never heard of and don’t know because we felt it was really important to make these messages feel accessible to people because I think a lot of people, as you read a book, and you read about these incredible leaders from history that were huge in life, but are even bigger in death, that they feel, perhaps, “Well, yeah. I’m just never going to have to make a decision like on D-Day or how do we resist communism.” People are not going to obtain that level of leadership, which may in fact very well be true for 99.9% of people, but I think it is important to know that there’s a reason why we read history. There’s a reason why we study it and why we think about the application of these ideas is because these people serve as incredible inspirational examples of what was it like when the stakes were that high with so many lives on the line or such high-stake decisions needed to be made about how do we respond to the Germans in 1938?

That’s where, once again, I think to be able to make those decisions you have to be able to tap into that moral courage. I just don’t think you get there as a person or as a leader by hearing a bunch of people around you reinforce you and tell you like, “Yeah, yeah. That’s what we need to do.” Ultimately, this is very much a conviction thing and as a leader, you need to be able to establish that conviction to have the courage to withstand being hated or withstand attempted assassinations. Obviously, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and Pope John Paul, they tried to kill him. A lot of people who are at that highest level, they knew that there’s a lot of people out there that hated them and yet still, they had the courage to stand fast. If they could do that when their lives were on the line and their decisions were impacting so many other people’s lives, then I think we can draw some inspiration from that in our own personal lives, as leaders especially, to find those moments where we can stick to our guns when we’re just disliked or we get some negative emails or some tweets sent our way about how we’re not very polite or we’re making the wrong decision.

Brett McKay: Mike, this has been a great conversation and I love the big picture ideas you’ve laid out. Talk about what are some of the brass tack things that people can do to inject some more solitude in their life.

Mike Erwin: I think this is something that a lot of people are grappling with and I actually feel the tide is turning on this. I think that as I’m talking to more and more people this technology tsunami of the past decade where we went from having flip phones to now having smartphones, but then data was still expensive, all the advances in how things have gotten cheaper over the past and more effective over the past 10 years, I think has really kind of got people to this point now where they’re like, “Holy smokes. How am I at this point now where I can’t put my phone down or where I need to constantly be plugged in to social media or to my email?”

We know from some research that most Americans are literally addicted to their email. They feel compelled to check it every five minutes, every 10 minutes. They just can’t seem to get by without leaving their email alone in case they might miss something.

There is a big component of that. In the brass tacks, getting back to your question, I just wanted to kind of set a little bit of the context there. I think that it really starts with this ability to know, in many cases, that you’ve got a problem, recognizing that you’re not necessarily happy with how accessible you’ve made yourself. Maybe in some cases, you’ve branded yourself as the person who gets back to somebody on email within five minutes and you just take great pride in that and you’re always plugged in and therefore you respond to people right away

We talk about, number one, deliberately resetting expectations with people. If you have become known as the person who, again, responds immediately to email or just always on social media or whatever, if you’re not happy with that, you have to let people know that, “Hey. I’ve done some reflection and I’m making some changes.”

In terms of the actual things you can do though, some of the basics are when you’re driving somewhere, sometimes, not all the time, but shut your radio off. Stop all the input. When you have the opportunity to go to lunch, sometimes go for lunch on your own. Leave your phone at the desk or at your office and just go out there, or leave it in your car, and spend 30 or 45 minutes just thinking, clearing your head, listening to your intuition, or spend some time getting creative on your own, coming up with your own ideas without bouncing those ideas off other people.

And then it’s finding those times in our personal life, whether it’s picking weeds or mowing the lawn or walking the dog or just going for a walk on our own or finding 10 or 15 minutes in the morning to meditate. There’s just so many things that we can do and I think that at the end of the day what we can do and what needs to happen is you just need to first recognize that you want to reintroduce these ideas into your life or make more deliberate decisions that allow you that space. The fact is we’ve actually because technology and society has become more efficient than ever, we actually have more capacity to practice solitude today in some regards than in years past, but many of us have sort of made the opposite decision to sort of be constantly in this state of distraction and input coming into our minds. It really does boil down to having the discipline to say, “I want to make this a priority and I’m gonna find the time to do it.”

Brett McKay: Well, Mike, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?

Mike Erwin: Yes. The book is in lots of local bookstores and Barnes and Noble and it’s on Amazon, of course. Really, we don’t have a website for the book. Really, it’s just out there. It’s out there on Bloomsbury’s website, but it’s on social media and it’s on the various typical outlets where people are reviewing books, and obviously, on great podcasts like this. I’ve had the honor to spend time talking about the book with 10 or 15 different podcasts and sharing these thoughts. Hopefully, people have listened to the conversation today and have been inspired by some of the ideas and, hopefully, feel challenged and called to look into the book and look into some of these ideas further.

Brett McKay: All right. Mike Erwin, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Mike Erwin: Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Mike Erwin. He’s the co-author of the book Lead Yourself First. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere.

Also, check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoy this show, have gotten something out of it since you’ve been listening to it, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute and give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot.

As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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