Book Review: Lead Yourself First

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There is a strange paradox about how we learn leadership. We make our reputations in public, in action. Leadership is a doing discipline. But we make ourselves in solitude and reflection.

There are no “born leaders.” We all must learn our craft through the interplay of action and reflection. As Frederick the Great said, “What good is experience if you do not reflect?”

Solitude was a natural part of the order of things for most of history. When you were out walking, you didn’t have a phone in your pocket that could ring and interrupt your thoughts. There was no email silently shouting, “Check me!” when you turned on your computer. Today, you must make time for solitude and reflection.

Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin show you how to develop two practices. One is “systematically” building pockets of solitude in your life. The other is recognizing unplanned and unexpected opportunities for solitude and seizing them.

That’s what Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude is about. It’s not about decision-making. It’s not about building character, or meditation, or even leadership. It’s about finding solitude and using it to reflect on your life, your challenges, and what you should do.

The authors use case studies to teach. If you’re like me, you’ll recognize some of the people they write about: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dwight Eisenhower. You might recognize others, but not know much about them. The case studies are the core of the book. You’ll get the most value from the book if you read them and reflect on them.

Solitude has been an important part of my life for decades. I read Lead Yourself First because I wanted to find out more about solitude and how other people used it. I achieved that goal. I found things I wanted to try and to do. I found ideas I wanted to think more about. The case study that was most helpful for me was about Dwight Eisenhower.

I already knew a lot about Eisenhower, but not much about how he used solitude. I discovered how he combined solitude with writing to analyze issues and concerns. I want to try Eisenhower’s practice of writing memos about important issues. He wrote the memos for himself, as a thinking exercise. Writing also helped Eisenhower maintain emotional balance in trying times.

You may want to get right to the “how-tos” of the book. Jump ahead to the last few pages. The chapter titled “Embracing Solitude” includes four sections about how to find solitude and use it productively.

  • Creating Solitude at Work
  • Solitude Outside Work
  • Preparing for Solitude
  • What to Focus on In Solitude

This will help you whether you’ve read the whole book or not. But you’ll get more from this material if you read the case studies. You may want to read the last few pages first and then start the book from the beginning.

In A Nutshell

Lead Yourself First is a helpful book about a vitally-important topic. Read it to understand how you can make yourself a better leader using solitude.


These posts from this blog relate to solitude and reflection. You will find pointers to more resources in some of them.

Use Solitude to Make Yourself a Better Leader

Great Leaders Grow in Solitude

Leadership: 3 Habits to Help You Learn from Experience

Boss’s Tip of the Week: Make reflection a habit

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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