WHITE SPACE: Two Good Reads for Leadership Development in an Age of Distraction

William M. Duke Written by:
William M. Duke

Leadership Development Means Discipline

Discipline . . . it’s a strong word. It means a lot of different things to different people. At Afterburner, it means doing what you are supposed to do or what you committed to do when you are supposed to do it. For leaders, being disciplined might also mean establishing a daily routine to disconnect and do nothing but think . . . or even to introduce a little chaos into a high-structure world!

In an excellent new book, Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, authors Raymond Kethledge, a judge on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Michael S. Irwin, a U.S. Army intelligence officer and professor of leadership and psychology at West Point, tackle discipline of a different sort. Jim Collins, the best-selling author of Good to Great and other excellent leadership books, opens this work with a powerful forward. In it, he declares that “Leading from good to great requires discipline – disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action.” Collins’ words serve as an excellent reflective guide for the reader.

Make Time to Disconnect

Leaders must have the discipline to make time to disconnect and think quietly and alone. In the past, leaders didn’t have to act with the discipline to disconnect because daily life before telegraphs, telephones, e-mail, and, now, round-the-clock instant two-way communication in all manner of verbal and visual forms, didn’t provide ubiquitous opportunities to connect with others. George Washington had to physically meet with others or exchange hand-written letters dispatched by couriers on horseback. As the authors relate, the solitude T.E. Lawrence needed came from a long bout of dysentery that confined him to a bed in a tent for nearly two weeks. Today’s incessant barrage of information and communication is inescapable without deliberate effort.

We live in an age of distraction that no generation has ever encountered before. We are bombarded with information and communication continuously and we feel obligated to stay connected to others around the clock. Tragically, solitude and time for reflection has been crowded out or worn away by the tyranny of virtual presence. It’s a tragedy because good and creative decisions, as this book proposes, are not born of a deluge of relentless information, but of the calm repose of white space. White space is simply taking time to be alone and think.

George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Jane Goodall, T. E. Lawrence, Ulysses S. Grant, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II and many others, some famous and some obscure, provide the authors what they describe as a ‘qualitative’ analysis of the effect of solitude on leadership decisions and creativity, rather than a ‘quantitative’ one – the typical source of information and guidance in the digital, big data age. Lead Yourself First is about the art of leadership rather than the science, a very welcome contribution to the literature in this reviewer’s estimation.

The Need for White Space to Avoid Task Saturation

Having the discipline to disconnect is one thing, but disconnecting with the intent to disrupt or introduce chaos into the status quo is another.  Authors Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack argue for the value of ‘contained chaos’ in their book, The Chaos Imperative. Organizations that become overwhelmed by process, procedure, and high tempo operations push out opportunities for white space. Such was the case for the U.S. Army when the author was summoned by General Martin Dempsey to help him change the Army. The challenge, after over a decade of war, was to re-think how the army worked. It needed white space to evaluate itself and achieve innovative solutions to the complex challenges of the modern world.

The Chaos Imperative is about creating disconnected white space with the purpose of allowing free thinking to solve a problem. The author’s call it organized serendipity – where answers emerge out of free-thinking minds. This reviewer finds this concept fascinating because, as the authors describe it, it sounds very similar to the planning process in Flawless Execution and the collaborative processes (called Teamstorming®) that we use to support the process. In essence, the planning space in Flawless Execution is organized white space where outside distractions are blocked so that creative thinking may be focused on a single mission or objective.

These books make a case for setting aside time, both as individual leaders and as teams, to think. Being task saturated and overworked is too often worn as a badge of honor rather than the tragedy it really is. Have the discipline to build white space into your routine!