A National Crisis: The Decline of Leadership

Here’s an excerpt from an excellent article on the decline of leadership skills in American institutions by William Deresiewicz. It’s from a graduation lecture given at Westpoint and reprinted in the current volume of The American Scholar:

“We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army–a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.”

Deresiewicz ties this lack of thinking and vision to the imagination- and attention-detroying power of modern technologies. Today’s youth are simply too distracted by cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc. to be able to sit down and concentrate. As an antidote, he recommends the deep and slow reading of great books…old books–the kind we study we in the Humanities:

“So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re notfrom today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude–the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine–there would be no America.

Read more: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/#more-6736

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