Solitude as a Path to Develop your Leadership

Before you stick a “Leader” name badge on the next disciple who can share the Four Spiritual Laws without a single mistake, take heed. He can follow the process with excellence. But is he a leader? In our movement, we like to call everyone a “leader.” But then we’re stuck with how to separate the Leaders from the leaders. I’ve been interested in the process of developing Leaders for several years.

The author of Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts has given me handles for some thoughts I’ve been wrestling with recently. His concern is that we train people to be world-class hoop jumpers who can achieve any goal set before them, pass any test, climb every mountain. Thought to be creating leaders, organizations are actually creating followers and bureaucrats–people who know how to achieve excellence within an existing system. Leaders, in contrast, are people who have the moral courage to develop their own ideas and argue for them even when they aren’t popular.

Christ Himself, a leader par excellence, frequently withdrew to focus His thoughts. The solitude of prayer and reflection is where strength, wisdom, and courage needed to lead well is refined.

This is the essence of self-directed leadership development. Concentrated, intentional time to think. To pray. To reflect. Slowing down. Developing and clarifying ideas in writing. Sharing those ideas with trusted others to see how they sound out loud. Asking–and answering–the hard questions.

I found such a time today while washing my cars. I received a message this morning from a friend telling me he would not lead his part of our organization to join a common direction we are pursuing. I found that the solitude of two hours working on my cars to be a very fruitful time to understand his thoughts and to refine my own. I’m now much better prepared to interact with him because I’m clearer about why I believe this direction is the best.

Memorizing facts and performing well are exemplary traits. But if our quest for achievement isn’t tempered with periods of quiet reflection on what we are actually trying to achieve, have we simply jumped another hoop  and successfully failed to lead?

[This post was greatly improved through the excellent help of Karin Tome, who assists me in my Leadership in many ways.]

  • Amber Lo

    Good thoughts, Keith. I have bookmarked the article you linked to because I am definitely interested in reading it when I have more time to reflect. I have wrestled with the question before of what we are really teaching students about leadership by teaching them to be hoop jumpers. There are times that teaching ministry skills can feel like teaching students to be box checkers. I have thought many times about how to teach leadership and ministry skills in a way that equals less performance and more innovation, while not losing the important core basics. Having worked in the corporate world for 6 years before joining staff, there were definitely some campus ministry skills that I learned during my time with CCC as a student that didn’t transfer to post-college ministry in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong, I also learned some invaluable evangelism skills from my time as a college student involved in CCC, as well as some important leadership skills. But, there was still a missing piece and it just might have been the development of leaders instead of Leaders.

    In our busy society, and in an organization that values productivity, higher capacity, and results, it can be hard to fit in extended times of slowing down, reflecting, solitude, and writing and clarifying ideas. I have never been busier than I am on staff. I had a director who highly encouraged multi-tasking, and using every available minute to work towards ministry goals. I had to fight to have quiet time, even to pray and reflect as I drove to campus instead of listening to podcasts or talking to students. As an introverted processor, I need quiet times in my day to really think, process, and reflect, especially if I am trying to formulate new ideas or think about leading and ministering in new ways. Instead, I find myself running from one meeting to another, reading less, always feeling late and rushed, and trying to check to-do’s off a never ending list filled with tasks for each of the 100 hats we wear as staff. I know that I am not fulfilling my leadership potential, but it has been challenging to whittle down the necessary roles in our job to find the needed time to slow down for quiet reflection and listening.

    I also wondered as I read your post what things we do within CCC that create followers and “people who know how to achieve excellence within an existing system” on staff? I can think of a few specific examples when following the status quo and being directed through “the hoops” of our organization quieted ideas or left no room for being heard when developing my own ideas and arguing for them even when they weren’t popular. I think there are many things we do because that’s the way they are done…even though they may be outdated or slowing down innovation. There has definitely been some growth in this area, but I think we still have a long way to go in our organization to develop Leaders instead of leaders, even within our staff.

    • Karin Tome

      Love this, Amber. Well put.

  • Keith Seabourn

    Thanks for sharing your journey, Amber. I appreciate your struggle.

    I’m a big proponent of teaching and exercising quality ministry skills. I’m a big proponent of learning to minister out of best practices like taking the initiative in reaching out to others, using appropriate and current ways to connect and engage with others, knowing how to lead a bible study to draw the most out of participants, effectively engaging with others to draw them beyond their comfort zone.

    Skillful actions are a critical part of our growth and change process of becoming like Christ.

    But along the way, it’s important for us to engage deeply in the internal work of connecting with the Why is this important? and the Where am I headed? and then the Why is that the next step? questions. As Steven Covey promotes Begin with the end in mind connects the actions with the goal as we move through the dailyness of life.

    And this doesn’t have to be done in a monk-ish fashion of withdrawing. Special times are good. But even taking an hour to work on more physical project in solitude can be very helpful.

  • Judy Douglass

    Thanks for this, Keith. Personally I must have times of solitude. I get them in those big aluminum tubes above the earth. But I have to take intentional time. So several times a year I take little 3-5 day prayer retreats by myself. I didn’t get any this year (I go in a month, finally), and I can tell. I am not able to focus as well, I feel scattered. These times provide my best listening time with the Lord. They are a real treasure for me.

  • Keith Seabourn

    Judy, I so resonate with your comment. In addition to looking for “moments of solitude”, I look forward to some extended times each year. This may be politically incorrect, but I find deer hunting in the east Texas woods to be very refreshing. I love the early morning stillness and sitting in the woods for 6-8 hours every day for a week. My team jokingly begins inquiring near deer season each year. They also recognize the need that I get away! And yes, those big aluminum tubes work well for me also, now that I’ve given myself permission to embrace the privilege of the solitude and not try to empty my email box or write that next report!

  • Karin Tome

    We do talk about big L leaders and little l leaders a lot. In a sense, it’s almost as if anyone involved in the the Crusade movement is a “leader”. But I think it’s because we are training people to be leaders in the hoop-jumping sense. Attend our seminars, learn the Leadership Framework, serve overseas, launch a movement (you get the idea) = become a leader. And then there’s a good chance you will become a positional big “L” Leader along the way. What we aren’t being trained to do is to think.

    My observation is that CCC staff are very good at knowing when they need to rest and taking time for that. Permission is freely granted (hello CSU summers). But it seems to me that it’s culturally acceptable to work hard and achieve results and to take time away from email, etc. to spend with family or have fun, but it’s not “acceptable” to take time away simply to process and synthesize as a subset of working hard and achieving results. Ken Cochrum taking an intentional sabbatical would be an exception to this.

    It seems that leadership is far more complex than its typically presented in Campus Crusade. And as we are moving into shared leadership, it’s a sticking point that would be worthwhile to be discussed and massaged more than it is now. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m jaded. I have working and social relationships with top leaders in CCC, my church, and spent three years at seminary learning how to lead from a Biblical model, and what I’ve come away with is that there are very few true leaders. I think we want to equate a walk with God with leadership (and throw in some charisma and skills) but I don’t think that’s the whole picture. I’m not sure what the answer — or even a better answer — is, but my gut says if we really want to see organizational change, we need to define our leadership terms more precisely.

    • Keith Seabourn

      Great thoughts, Karin. The leader/Leader issue definitely could benefit from RE-Think.

      The HR policy manual has had a sabbatical policy for at least 25 years. I know of no staff who have taken the maximum number of sabbaticals they are permitted to take. I know many staff who have never taken even one. In fact, I am actually one of those who have never taken advantage of this privilege even once. Why?

      While I’m wondering about myself, what about you? Have others reading this post. Have you taken your allotted sabbaticals? Why or why not? I’m Re-Thinking my poor approach to a sabbatical opportunity. What about you?

      • Renae Nanney

        We’ve been talking more about think time and reflection time at keynote. Many of our leaders have taken sabbatical time for perhaps the first time recently. In years past it seemed to used more when people were discouraged and were pondering a change in direction. However, we’ve really shifted here to seeing it as an opportunity to re-engage with the mission and recharge to be able to give 100% of our efforts and also our minds and spirits. Leaders can’t afford to have nothing in the spiritual & emotional tanks if they desire to impact others. I applaud the leaders in Keynote for making this a priority!

  • Doug Leppard

    There is so much in your blog it could have been a series of four blogs:
    • Everyone is a leader problem
    • We create world-class hoop jumpers
    • Leaders, in contrast, are people who have the moral courage to develop their own ideas and argue for them even when they aren’t popular.
    • Christ Himself, a leader par excellence, frequently withdrew to focus His thoughts. The solitude of prayer and reflection is where strength, wisdom, and courage needed to lead well is refined.

    Each of those ideas build on each other well.

    Let me for this response take on the everyone is a leader problem. I know the spirit behind it that thought and it is a good spirit. But the problem as Karin so well pointed out “my gut says if we really want to see organizational change, we need to define our leadership terms more precisely.” I think we have watered down the concept of leadership and the price of being a leader. Also by making everyone a leader we have down played to second class status followers of leaders.

    I think we indirectly communicate that a person has failed if all they have done is being a faithful follower and not a leader.
    So I am with Karin define our leadership terms more precisely, uplift being a faithful follower and worker.

    A follower of the great leader Jesus.

  • Jeff West

    In our movement, we like to call everyone a “leader.” But then we’re stuck with how to separate the Leaders from the leaders.

    Preach it Keith! There is a big difference between the title of leader and an identity as a leader. Knowledge, performance, and expertise (things that most people possess to some degree) do not necessarily constitute leadership. Excellent management and maintenance and even creative thinking are all important, and yet possessing those admirable qualities does not necessarily make a person a leader. Excellent and honest followers empower great leadership.

  • Deb Heefner

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this Keith…and yes, there are a few blogs within your blog to be sure!! I actually replied to something in Ken’s blog along these lines, but because it fits this theme even more, I’ll add my thoughts here as well.

    There’s a quote by Henri Nouwen that captures me every time I read it: “Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our Master and where we can respond freely to His guidance.” It’s about having those times of solitude where I can give God my full attention…not my distracted, time to run off to the next thing, pseudo-attention. I wish that came more easily for me, but sadly I’m prone toward staying busy and supposedly productive. But honestly, I’ve found that any worthwhile productivity that comes out of me is first created within me during times of honest reflection with the Lord. And for me, there’s nothing like a nice long hike out in nature for some quality processing of my life with Jesus.

    I also try to do a getaway at least twice a year where my only goal is to create that space and time where God can truly Master me. And last spring I took a sabbatical that was both life-producing and life-changing. Yes, it was hard to press pause on all the things that my life and ministry require of me, but goodness was it worth it!!

    Here’s what I’ve found to be true…”Be still and know that I am God” won’t easily fit well into my normally hectic and full life. If I don’t choose to live a “savoring” lifestyle, with plenty of being still and knowing, it most certainly won’t happen!! Thanks for encouraging us towards solitude Keith!

    • Keith Seabourn

      I, too, have been challenged by Henri Nouwen, Deb. “Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our Master and where we can respond freely to His guidance.” Very good. I’ve added it to my blog site! The quotes on my blog are as much for me as for any readers!

  • Anne-Marie

    I read somewhere that we should take about 20% of our workweek for reflection… it was in a management book for secular workplaces seeking to encourage creativity and development… That is a day a week…
    or about one and a half hours to two hours a day…
    When I was a young Christian, I was challenged to tithe my time, and give one tenth of my day to God by practicing the spiritual disciplines.
    I have often missed out on the goal, but know it is just easier for me to truly enjoy God when the disciplines are strong in my life, and then, walking in the Spirit just seems so much easier.
    My problem is there are so many distractions pulling me away from what is best…

  • Russ Martin

    Very helpful. I want to get better at leading myself and embracing solitude. I have trouble down-shifting.

    You said…”Leaders, in contrast, are people who have the moral courage to develop their own ideas and argue for them even when they aren’t popular.”

    What are some good tests for knowing when you need to muster up courage and promote/fight for/argue your ideas and when your ideas are radical – but bad, prideful or the result of blindspots?

    • Keith Seabourn

      Excellent question, Russ. Hopefully, others will share their thoughts about what are some good tests.

      I have learned that time is an important factor in separating the wheat from the chaff. Time is an important part of my internal processing. Initial feelings in many cases are things like anger or disappointment or frustration. Time allows me to process through my initial feelings. Time allows the Holy Spirit to “guide me into all truth”.

      I really liked the Henri Nouwen quote that Deb wrote in her comment: “Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our Master and where we can respond freely to His guidance.”

      “… the concentrated effort to create the space and time…” and “… where we can respond to his guidance.”

      So the “test” for me is this: Is this issue continuing to seem as important as it did at first? Have I gotten past my initial reaction (anger, disappointment, frustration, etc) and begun to discern the core principle(s) in this issue?

      As I wrote in my initial post, I was frustrated by the decision of a colleague. Time and solitude (or “space” in Nouwen’s terminology) were very helpful as I worked through my initial frustration to the core principles. Then I was ready to take a stand on the issue, which I did this morning.

    • Rich Street

      Russ, greetings from someone else who has a hard time embracing solitude and doesn’t even know where the gears are for downshifting!

      I am learning some about what you are wrestling with in the book “Crucial Conversations”. Love some of its principles and question asking of myself before I have one of these “crucial conversations” when I need to muster up courage (or in my case, hold my tongue).

  • Rich Street

    Keith…errr..Karin great post! I enjoyed it. As an extrovert who rarely likes to be alone this whole idea of solitude whether it is reflected in Ken’s blog point on “divine displacement” or your point on learning to be alone with your thoughts is so hard for me to grasp. Being alone drains me. How does an extrovert like me take advantage of “alone time” without me giving in and making contact with someone else? :)

    • Keith Seabourn

      The article “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts” outlined several components of solitude. Deep, intimate conversations where you hear your thoughts out loud in a safe environment.

      He writes:
      But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation.

      He continues:
      Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.

      So, Mr. Extrovert, talk to a close friend!

      • Rich Street

        YES!!! I can be spiritual and deep as an extrovert! Great word Keith!

  • Dave

    Great post Keith.

    Innovation in ministry, stemming from times of solitude that you are talking about, is absolutely crucial in ministry. I fear that ‘new staff’ and other people of my generation fall into the hoop-jumping mentality you talk about. Not only because of the organizational structure, but because of our own failure to minister out of a relationship with the Lord. If the living Spirit of God is directing one’s heart, then ministry will never become stagnant. I hope innovation becomes an expectation in ministry, rather than simply something we are “freed to do”.

  • Vicky Chiew

    Thanks for this post and all the comments/q’s!

    Some questions that have been plaguing me:

    1. How can an organization like CCC that is essentially bureaucratic in its structure (ex. hierarchal, gate-keeping, well-defined roles) effectively produce the type of leaders we’re talking about (non-bureaucratic, creative/innovative, “outside-the-box” thinkers/doers)?

    2. How can we practically emphasize “slowing down,” consistent times of solitude, a healthy balance of action and contemplation/reflection, et al. when we emphasize way more the concrete results of ministry, such as the # of spiritual conversations, Gospel presentations, new converts, multiplying disciples etc., and we measure our effectiveness by these results?

    I think my questions relate to the systemic piece in leadership development. No matter how much I want to grow in leadership, I’d find myself always hitting CCC’s bureaucratic, results-oriented wall, which prevents me from growing in solitude and “slowing down” for further effectiveness. At least, this has been my experience in the campus ministry context, especially as a co-campus director.

    I think we either have to change the system so that it’s conducive to greater growth/cultivation of the type of leaders we’re talking abt here; or we have to accept the limitations of leadership development in CCC b/c of our system, and work w/ that (i.e. having realistic expectations of growth).

    What are your guys’ thoughts? Or am I off in my perceptions/assumptions/interpretations?

  • Keith Seabourn

    Vicky, very good and very serious questions. What do the rest of you in the blogference think? How can we develop leaders within CCC?

  • Philip Zimmerman

    Keith, thanks so much for your comments. I’m a former staff who served with CCC for seven years and recently left to pursue a different path of God’s calling for me. That said, I love CCC and my many friends and colaborers who are still there.

    Interestingly, I just finished reading a book that has challenged me in my current life of ministry, in thinking about my years of serving with CCC and also in interacting with staff from other missions organizations. Though not specifically a leadership book, it is at the center of the topic in your post. It is Thomas R. Kelly’s book A Testament of Devotion, and I highly recommend it for anyone – like myself – who is wrestling with what it looks like to cultivate a life in which solitude is not just another “to do” among the many checkboxes of life and ministry but is the lifeblood of our Leadership and of our intimacy with God. “We Western peoples are apt to think our great problems are external, environmental. We are not skilled in the inner life, where the real roots of our problem lie.” My observation is that the development of hoop-jumpers stems from within…it is not a problem with a particular organization…the problem is me. It’s a result of my own scatteredness, my own distraction, my own over-busyness. “The outer distractions of our interests reflect an inner lack of integration of our own lives” says Kelly. I’ve seen this play out and am excited to pursue a life of inner integration and simplicity that expresses itself in a way that doesn’t just desire to gather box-checkers but to truly set the people around me free to innovate and become creatively missional in their calling.

    • Keith Seabourn

      Hi, Philip! It’s good to connect with you. Hope the studies are going well.

      Thanks for the Testament of Devotion book suggestion.

  • Patrick Ng

    Great great thots Keith. Love that you shared abt the clarity that came to you as you found solitude even while washing your cars – a good reminder that practicing solitude isn’t about sitting on the mountain top and going ‘ooohmmm…’ for days (lol), but POSTURING ourselves such that we can hear the Master speak.

    Love what Ruth Haley Barton said: “For those of us in leadership, it is often hard to find space that is quiet enough and safe enough for the soul to be as honest as it needs to be.”

    I’m a firm believer that there needs to be integrity btw the outward and inward life of a leader… (we can’t preach the good news and BE the bad news)! And solitude and reflection afford these 2 sides of our lives to ‘catch up with each other’.

    Hope to read more of your blogs and thots…

    • Keith Seabourn

      Hey, Patrick. You’ll sometimes see the Ruth Haley Barton quote appearing on my blog site. I’ve added it. It provokes my soul to grow. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Ken Cochrum

    Hey Keith,

    Great and insightful post! As a borderline E/I (extrovert/introvert) I find myself needing consistent rhythms of engagement and withdrawal from people.

    I missed the conversation on your post due to a very full day yesterday, but wanted you to know I’ve benefitted from this thread. Thanks for teeing up an overlooked and underpracticed topic.


    • Keith Seabourn

      Looking forward to catching up sometime, Ken. I’ve sent the link to your Four On-Ramps to Personal Leadership Development post and the rich interaction to several people I care deeply about. The “embrace divine displacement” was pure gold. Very provocative to embrace these changes as part of my leadership development. I’m also a big fan of “act on what you know”. Comes with being a Birkman red!

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  • James Chhuy

    Leaders must be the ones who are able to think for themselves. They are not just agree with everything they hear. They interacts, discuss and clarify thoughts. But many times they are viewed as “Rebellious Character” because of not always submitting.
    So please help me get the proper understanding about this. Thanks.

  • Doni Siswanto

    Thank God for your article! I’m so blessed,remind me to have spiritual discipline.Leader need to have time personaly with his Master to realize that God is the One who works in and through our life. One quatation from other reading that I found ‎​” Do not pray for easy lives.Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be the miracle ” (Philips Brooks). For me, I confess that manytimes I was failed to have concistant time to solitude because of man reason. I need to start to have it. Doni Siswanto

  • Keith Seabourn

    Doni, following the online blogference where I first wrote this article, I added two additional articles at my personal website. Please check out these two for additional thoughts:

    Blessings, Keith

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