#Reviewing Lead Yourself First

Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude. Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA, 2017.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the information age, it’s a lack of reflection.”
—General James Mattis [1]


Last year, an article by Major Crispin Burke highlighted the demanding number of regulatory requirements put on Army leaders. Burke explained that “nearly 20 months of annual mandatory training [are] crammed into a 12-month calendar year.”[2] Thus, any suggestion that leaders must carve out more time—from work, family, or friends—to pursue solitude may sound, at best, out of touch and, at worst, absurd. However, the authors of Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership through Solitude posit otherwise. I agree with them, and I am not alone.

In Lead Yourself First, Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin argue that to lead others one must first seek to lead themselves. Solitude creates the necessary white space and opportunity to mature as leaders. Solitude also provides an opportunity to better connect with intuition, which allows our minds to connect the dots, find patterns, and bridge the gap between the conscious and subconscious. Through solitude and reflection, we can unveil our core values, strengthen our resolve, and gain perspective. Each of these are required to lead effectively.

I believe leaders, collectively, understand the value in or seeking solitude. Unfortunately, our well-intended efforts to fulfill our duty, demonstrate selfless service, or show loyalty compel us to remain plugged-in almost continuously. Current communications technology makes such constant connection not only possible, but convenient. Unfortunately, by remaining plugged-in we risk losing out on the benefits attained through solitude.

In fairness to prospective readers, concepts of seeking solitude and reflection are not new. The Army’s current Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development addresses both reflective thinking and reflective journaling as part of one’s self-development.[3] In 2013, Terry Pearce’s Leading Out Loud explained that finding one’s values and identity “requires reflection, not merely reading good management books.”[4] In the 1970s, Servant Leadership author Robert Greenleaf encouraged leaders to “withdraw and reorient” themselves, explaining that “pacing oneself by appropriate withdrawal is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of one’s resources.”[5]

The strength of Lead Yourself First is not the introduction of a novel idea. Rather, its value is in knitting together profound personal stories that bring to life an existing idea: solitude begets increased understanding of oneself and one’s environment. Readers will find Lead Yourself easy to read and its stories heartfelt—at times even heart-wrenching. Though the book’s subjects are diverse, there are aspects of them to which we can all relate.

The book’s structure is built on four fruits of solitude: clarity, creativity, emotional balance, and moral courage. While the first two fruits are important qualities to in a leader, it’s the latter two that merit emphasis for they speak to a leader’s character and presence—two of the three leader attributes in current Army leader development doctrine.[6]

Emotional Balance

First, today’s leaders at all levels feel the weight of external and internal pressures. Externally, there are more meetings, phone calls, emails, notifications, family activities, expectations from others, and so on. Internally, leaders wrestle with pressures to succeed, the optics of mistakes, and one’s own ambitions. Left unmanaged, these ever-increasing pressures could leave a leader emotionally weakened.

Capt John Miller, Saving Private Ryan ()

The authors argue that solitude acts as “a pressure-relief valve.”[7] Another example, beyond the stories of this book, is that of Saving Private Ryan’s fictional Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks). In the movie, following a contentious decision to execute a difficult charge against an enemy position, the unit’s sole medic received a fatal wound. Infighting and squabbling resulted amongst the men. Miller, overwhelmed by the moment, disengaged from the situation. He hunkered down in a crater and emotionally broke down. Yes, as the leader, Miller assumed risk in disengaging. The infighting may have escalated in his absence. That said, his moment of solitude help to relieve his internal escalating pressure. In doing so, he regained his emotional balance and capacity to positively affect the external fighting.

Moral Courage

Considering the growing lethality of potential operating environments, commanders must be ready, and willing, to position subordinate commanders “away from the flagpole.”  This positioning of CPs may result in periods of isolation for leaders at all tactical levels.  Young commanders and leaders  may have to render difficult decisions with little oversight, or translate the effects of this decision based on ambiguous feedback from the environment.  The fortitude to successfully lead in such an environment—alone and unafraid, so to speak—requires moral courage. Trust is the bedrock of mission command, but it is one’s moral courage that senior leaders ultimately trust in their junior leaders. Lead Yourself First explains how leaders can hone moral courage through solitude.

The seeds of moral courage may come in a variety of forms: a life event, relationship, belief, or experience. Unfortunately, a frenetic paced life or harsh criticism of an aspiration will dry the soil surrounding these seeds. An underdeveloped passion may be easily uprooted in these conditions. Therefore a leader must create the conditions for the seedling to mature. Through solitude, a leader can find “reassurance that what he is doing is right, that he is doing his best, that he is a good person notwithstanding what the moral critics say.”


Lead Yourself First joins a family of similar books weaving leadership with values, intuition, and reflection. Dov Seidman’s How and Simon Sinek’s Start with Why both agree that values and principles, to be sustainable, should be internally generated. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink delves into the mysterious connection between the conscious and subconscious and the role of intuition. The book will not teach anyone how to meditate so to speak, but that is not its purpose. Rather, it illuminates why solitude matters, and what fruit we can glean from it.

The lesson is clear. Make time for solitude. Unplug. Schedule white space. It will be worth it for leaders and for those being led. Creativity, clarity, emotional balance, and moral courage do not passively just appear. They ought to be sought after. I’d encourage all leaders and potential leaders to add Lead Yourself First to their professional and personal reading lists

Matthew J. Smith is an Army Aviator who has served in a variety of operational assignments.. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.

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Header Image: Still Image From Saving Private Ryan, Trailer (YouTube)


[1] Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017), 80.

[2] Burke, Crispin, “No Time, Literally, For All Requirements,” Association of the United States of Army (04 April 2017), https://www.ausa.org/articles/no-time-literally-all-requirements (accessed June 22, 2017).

[3] Department of the Army, Field Manual (FM) 6-22, Leader Development (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2015), 4-14 & 4-16

[4] Seidman, Dov. How: Why How We Do anything Means Everything (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2007), 12.

[5] Robert K. Greenleaf. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Edited by Larry C. Spears. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1977, 33.

[6] The third attribute is Intellect. Department of the Army, Army Digital Publication (APD) 6-22, Army Leadership (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2012), Figure 2.

[7] Kethledge and Erwin, Leading Yourself First, 97.

[8] Ibid, 153