Growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, I’d sometimes see my dad involved in long, quiet conversations with our mother or his brother or sister. How the adults were able to sit around and talk so much, instead of watching TV, shooting baskets or throwing a baseball, was something my siblings and I could never understand.

Today, my grandchildren probably wonder the same thing about me.

Because those seemingly boring talks played a critical role in molding my father’s view of the world. He referred to those occasions as “solitude” – a time when he and our mother, uncle or aunt could step away from their busy lives and speak privately and deeply about topics that really mattered to them, whether it was family, faith, hardships or history. My father believed these conversations helped strengthen his mind, character and resolve– and they must have. He had as much integrity as anyone I’ve ever known.

After reading biographies of leaders like Abe Lincoln and Winston Churchill whose greatness was grounded in solitude, I gradually came to admire my father’s approach – and then emulate it – in our world of unrelenting distraction. Recent research by my CCL colleague Jennifer Deal found that leaders spend an average of 13.5 hours each day connected to work through their smartphones. Even when the phones aren’t communicating work messages, they are bombarding us with personal texts, emails and social media updates that are often frivolous or trivial. The practical result is that we can’t focus on anything for very long – and when we get out of the habit of concentrating our brains literally start to lose the capacity for deep thought. And the kinds of complex challenges that leaders at all levels face today cannot be addressed in 140 characters or a string of emojis.

In previous columns, I’ve explored strategies for managing email and handling stress, which can help us unplug and clear our minds enough to do some real thinking. To then sustain serious thought, there’s no substitute for solitude.

The word itself quickly brings to mind solitary retreats into nature like Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond. Most of us can’t get away like that, but we shouldn’t ignore Thoreau’s wisdom either. Leadership is grounded in character, and our character is strengthened by solitude, which gives us the space to consider and affirm our convictions. So we need to find solitude where we can, and we can start by broadening our definition of it the way my father did.

If the ultimate intent of solitude is to create room to engage deeply with our own thoughts, we don’t have to go into the wilderness to find it. We don’t need to isolate ourselves entirely from other people. We can actually find oases of solitude in the middle of our lives in at least three ways:

  • Pull up a chair: Like my dad all those years ago, I’m more than happy now to sit down and dive into one-on-one conversations with family or trusted colleagues and friends. In fact, I rely on those opportunities to build personal bonds and make sense of experiences, feedback or other information. As leaders, most of us have long to-do lists, days packed with meetings, flights to catch and pressing deadlines. It’s easy enough to move from one thing to next without thinking too much, and nobody’s going to blame us for it. But if we’re serious about tapping into our full potential, we must have our assumptions challenged, try out new ideas, and look at situations from different angles. Lengthy, private conversations help us with all those things.
  • Pick up a book – or a tablet: I read all the time – books, magazines, newspapers – and usually on airplanes surrounded by other people. It’s not classic solitude, but it has the same effect even at 30,000 feet. It’s good to engage with the text – underline key passages, make notes in the margins and then set it aside for a bit and simply think about how this knowledge might apply to situations in my own life. For those of us who don’t like to read, there’s plenty of other great content online that can do much more than just entertain us – TED talks, documentaries and infographics that can stop us in our tracks and force us to think. Regardless of what content we’re interacting with, the key is to give it our full attention, ponder it for a bit and then find connections with our own lives.
  • Put on our workout shoes: Sometimes, the best way to process a good conversation or a smart piece of writing is to get to the gym or, even better, out into nature for a jog or a walk. Before going for a run, I’ll often pick one issue from my priority list and mull it over during exercise. This is another form of solitude that we can find even in a busy gym. If we can stick with a certain line of thought during 30 or 45 minutes of exercise, we’re likely to emerge with some new insights, the kind that don’t occur when we’re eating lunch at our desk, joining a conference call, and answering emails all at the same time.

Thoreau once observed that, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” We all look at a lot of things these days on our phones and laptops and TV screens. The ability to see the important patterns in that information and reflect deeply separates superb leaders from good ones. And 20-20 vision starts with solitude.

This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a LinkedIn Influencer.

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