By Thomas M. Loarie

BOOK REVIEW: Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude

September 16, 2018
Column: CEO Learnings

Unstructured time is an under-appreciated and wasted gift in today’s modern industrialized world. We are driven by activity and fill moments of silence with busyness. We are conditioned to equate “work” with virtue and are uneasy with solitude.

Authors Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in “Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude” challenge this modern conditioning to work. They draw on the experience of a diverse group of people—including Jane Goodall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Saint Pope John Paul II – to show the central role solitude played in their success.

This book was written for leaders, whether they are leading a large organization, a small team or single family member. “Anyone who leads anyone – including oneself – can benefit from solitude.” “Lead Yourself First” resonated for me as I have carved out sixty to ninety minutes (my “sacred hour”) for journaling, reading and reflection at the beginning of each day for 30+ years.

In the Foreword, “Good to Great” author Jim Collins notes that “leading requires discipline. Disciplined people engage in disciplined thought and take disciplined action…Disciplined thought requires the discipline to create quiet time for reflection.”

It is Collins’ observation that great leaders are disciplined about creating space for solitude to center themselves and reflect, to gain clarity and strength, and to recognize unexpected opportunities.

He’s not alone.

Warren Buffett gravitates towards the quiet of his hometown and has a simple daily life full of reading and gestation.

“Inactivity can be very intelligent behavior,” Buffett says.

Bill Gates creates pockets of time by setting aside entire weeks to go away, read and reflect. He calls it “think week.” George Washington used the early morning hours before others awoke for riding around Mount Vernon and reflection. Winston Churchill laid bricks at his home retreat.

There are many other paths to solitude.

Some find solitude in the backcountry, camping, climbing or hiking; some in mediation many in prayer; and others in visual arts such as painting or sculpture. Meditation has grown in popularity with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reporting that 18 million now meditate in the US. A new meditation app launched by Headspace Health reports it has 20 million users, up from 10 million one year ago. Mindfulness. which finds its home in solitude, reduces cortisol and blood pressure, biomarkers for stress.

Authors Kethledge and Erwin note that to be an effective leader, one must first lead himself.

The first step in leadership is to “Know Thyself.” Solitude provides time and space to reflect on the crucibles of our life so we can leverage them for self-development. In solitude we can ask ourselves such questions as: How did we deal with the crucibles of our life? Did we use them to teach us about our character and where we can improve? Reflections such as these help us develop clarity and conviction of purpose, and the moral courage to sustain it through adversity.

“Solitude is not merely physical separation from others,” the authors write. “It can be found sitting alone in a restaurant as it can on Mount Rainier. It is not an objective concept but a subjective one. Simply it is a subjective state of mind, and which the mind, isolated from input from other minds, works through a problem on its own…Solitude yields the clarity to know when the easy path is the wrong one.”

Solitude fuses the mind and soul, producing the stronger alloy of conviction and the moral courage not to conform, while bearing the consequences of what may come our way.

“Lead Yourself” is in four parts with each part focusing on a particular quality enhanced by solitude:  Clarity, Creativity, Emotional Balance, and Moral Courage. The authors offer stories on how different people built pockets of solitude into their lives. The stories highlight how these qualities were enhanced and how this led to unexpected insights and opportunities.

Moments of solitude and contemplation are hard-won and fleeting. They are in serious jeopardy today as emails, texts, facebook and even video and online gaming addictions overwhelm us with input. These distractions keep us from looking deep inside of ourselves for courage and inspiration. As a result, most are operating at a superficial level, merely reacting to inputs that do nothing for our soul or our mind. Serious and inspired thinking rarely arise from the noise and garbage that fills our daily life.

If fusing the mind and soul for clarity, creativity, emotional balance and moral courage appeals to you, then this is the book for you.


  • Buy from Amazon & help Catholic Business Journal:  Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin
  • Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t, by Jim Collins

  • More about author Raymond Kethledge.  Raymond Kethledge is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He formerly served as a law clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy and to Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr., and founded his own law firm with two partners. He teaches a seminar on writing and oral advocacy each year at the University of Michigan Law school where he received his law degree.

  • More about author Michael Erwin. Michael Erwin is a graduate of West Point and served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. He now serves as the CEO of the character and leadership center and the president of the positivity project. He is also founder and chairman of team red, white and blue, a veteran-support nonprofit with more than 100,000 members nationwide. He continues to serve as a major in the Army reserve and is an assistant professor in leadership in psychology at West Point.


Thomas M. Loarie is the CEO of BryoLogyx, a rotating host of THE MENTORS radio show, and a senior editorial advisor and columnist for Catholic Business Journal. He may be reached at

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