Leadership and loneliness

Idealisation of solitude

Idealisation of solitude

Loneliness is an ancient phenomenon; we know nothing about how early humans fared, how they reflected on their lives and whether they were able to do so at all. But we must certainly assume that the first humans also knew isolation and loneliness; they were certainly also driven by primal fears in the face of the natural forces of the world. Ever since people handed down their thoughts and experiences, whether through stories or writings, we have known that they were concerned with loneliness and being alone. The creation story points to the primordial state of emptiness (»the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.«, Genesis 1:2) and prominently and early on makes it clear that »it is not good that man should be alone« (Genesis 2:18).

For the philosophers of antiquity, loneliness is a significant theme. Epicurus praises solitude in the garden. The Stoics, especially Seneca, emphasise the alternation between (idle) solitude and sociability (de otio et solitudine). Many modern thinkers follow this line, for example Michel de Montaigne (especially in »On Solitude«, Essais, First Book).

Loneliness as a concept emerged in the Middle Ages with the spread of Meister Eckhardt’s writings, as a translation of the Latin unio in the sense of unio mystica (loneliness as being one with God). Christian mystics chose Jesus Christ as the idol of solitude (for example, through his retreats from the community repeatedly described in the New Testament; his solitude in the Garden of Gethsemane on the evening before the crucifixion is probably best known). The ideal of this seclusion with simultaneous union with the divine is taken up again and again by Leo Tolstoy: »The lonelier someone is, the more clearly he hears the voice of God«. He exaggerates this thought and makes it a spiritual guideline for those who follow him: »At the highest level of consciousness, man is alone. Such loneliness can seem strange, unusual, even difficult. Foolish people try to avoid it by various distractions to escape from this exalted to a lower place. Wise people, on the other hand, persevere on that summit with the help of prayer.«

This is in contradiction to the Enlightenment, which propagates the ideal of thinking for oneself. In his Enlightenment maxims, Immanuel Kant in particular mentions »thinking for oneself«, having the courage to use one’s own intellect. To do this, man must withdraw again and again to be able to think. In the Romantic period, on the other hand, sensitivity is emphasised in the sense of withdrawing into one’s own inwardness. Pietism, on the other hand, knows a mixed form of mystified solitude and listening to oneself to explore one’s own conscience and to assure oneself of oneself (albeit with strict dogmatics: »Who sits on the throne of your heart? Jesus or yourself?«).

Max Weber’s political sociology burned the term »charismatic rule« into European discourse; comprehensively describing a type of leader who, as a bearer of charisma, holds authority and command and generates mass obedience. Significant for the topic of »loneliness« here is that the charismatic leader has unique personality traits – i.e., this alone sets him or her apart from the collective. The relationship with the followers is a mainly emotional and idealised leader‐​guided relationship. The charismatic leader is alone, decides alone and, in the final analysis, is removed from the collective. A synonym for this type of leadership is »heroic leadership«: At the top of the organisation (company, department, unit, etc.) is a single person who sets the goals and the strategy. The entire organisation is dependent on the leader, for better or worse. What makes him a shining or tragic lone »hero« is essentially victory – or defeat.

Since the charismatic or heroic leader is an archetype, remnants of this thinking are still prevalent in the 21st century. The aforementioned beliefs of individual leadership theorems, combined with ancient Greek, modern and romantic virtues lead to the image of the lone decisive leader being dominant in the minds of many people. Self‐​thinking, withdrawing to reflect, self‐​chosen silence and being alone (as a distance from everyday life) are self‐​evidently important competencies and opportunities that leadership needs and should not allow itself to be deprived of. But are those right who emphasise that man is alone, especially the more responsibility he bears? Do they have to accept their loneliness? Or is it not rather, to use Albert Camus’ words, that he can shape his destiny?