1. Early Lessons in Leadership

The Power of Being Alone with Yourself

Early lessons in leadership – #6

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a young executive was forced on me by circumstances beyond my control. Left to my own devices, I might never have learned that using quiet time to find clarity requires intent.

I’m an extrovert by nature — I always have been — and I love to be around people, share ideas, get feedback, and build that kind of synergistic energy.  So, it took a life-changing event to reveal the power of spending time alone.

As a social person who found that collaboration always worked well for me, I had neither the inclination nor the opportunity to spend much time in solitary reflection. Then, in the early ‘90s, I took an assignment in Japan. My wife had a job she liked back in the states, so the “commute” was extreme. I didn’t really know anyone in Japan except my co-workers, who were anxious to spend weekend time with their families.

This was before social media and the universal adoption of email. It was also before international mobile phones (we had those expensive things the size of a thermos – and I was actually armed with the famous “International Calling Card”).  Even so, scheduling a call with friends and loved ones was challenging, given the extreme difference in time zones. Instead of living out of an American hotel, I rented an apartment, where people pretty much kept to themselves.  And of course, the television and entertainment options were in Japanese, so none of the usual distractions were available. As you can imagine, the combination of these factors proved very isolating.

For the first time in my life, I had blocks of time alone — time spent in my own head — with no one handy to discuss my day, the decisions to be made, or the general trivialities of a life shared with friends and family. I really missed the interaction. But in hindsight, this unlocked the opportunity to spend concentrated time in reflection — something I would never have sought intentionally. And it turned out to be one of the most significant periods I’ve ever experienced.

There’s a lot of power in slowing down, reflecting, not making excuses, and taking the time to be honest with yourself. And you simply can’t do that in the few minutes spent waiting for an appointment or stuck in traffic. Spending time by myself, I was confronted with my own uninterrupted thoughts. I learned a lot about who I was and what I wanted to be.

Today, it’s harder than ever to shut out the rest of the world, which means that time alone is something that needs to be designed, scheduled, and honored. Call it meditation if it helps. Or tell people you need to give your brain time to reboot. But give it a try. I can honestly say that the time I spent in contemplation — even though it was because there were no better options — made a profound difference in my life. I went to Japan as one person and came back another.  I started out as something of a hot-headed, impatient American business guy who thought he had all the answers, and came back as someone more centered, more intentional, more in tune with what was going on in my head and in the world around me.

Of course, I didn’t realize at that time what a profound change it had made. But now I can see it. The great thing about reflection is that, when you take time to know yourself better, you become more discerning about the outcomes and goals you want to achieve, and also what you don’t want. Once you understand the path you’re on, you make better decisions about how to move forward and achieve your dreams for the future. If that’s not worthwhile, what is?