Leadership and loneliness

Solitaire et solidaire – Ways out of loneliness

Solitaire et solidaire – Ways out of loneliness

For Camus, the inviolability of the human person and the possibility of taking one’s fate into one’s own hands are essential foundations of his thinking. It is worth remembering this when it comes to how one can succeed in overcoming one’s own loneliness, being alone. Reflection on what is possible and how we can shape our lives is essential here and not an expression of a »Red Cross morality« (Sartre) that only wanted to help people superficially or, even worse, only provided symbolic answers.

Quality: Life density instead of life optimisation 

In 2009, against the background of the financial crisis and the failed climate summit in Copenhagen, Peter Sloterdijk’s bestseller is published »Du mußt dein Leben ändern. Über Anthropotechnik.« (»You Must Change Your Life«, Engl. 2013). The core of this much acclaimed essay is that humans create themselves by practising. – At first glance, Sloterdijk takes up existential thinking; the verse »You must change your life«, hijacked from Rilke, can very well be understood as an appeal to take one’s own destiny into one’s own hands. But he develops an anthropological model of the human being as a lifelong exerciser. For Sloterdijk, practice is »any operation by which the qualification of the agent for the next performance of the same operation is maintained or improved, whether it is declared to be practice or not.« (2009, p. 14). With the term »anthropotechnics«, Sloterdijk aims at the »immunitary constitution of the human being«: man strives to perfect himself biologically, socio‐​culturally (juridically, militarily, politically) and symbolically (religion, art). Practice (training, coaching …), in his reading, the permanent work on oneself contributes to individual improvement as well as to the improvement of the world. (But watch out: It is not difficult to trace the line back to Nietzsche’s questionable concept of the Übermensch). – Sloterdijk’s diagnosis is that man is already overburdened by permanent life optimisation and needs a way out. His answer: more life optimisation, namely through practice. A rascal who thinks of Mark Twain: »Having lost sight of our goals, we redouble our efforts.« …

It is difficult to seriously argue against lifelong learning or practice. It is clear, however, that existential issues are not about practising, even if many coaching sessions at this point give the impression that everything can be trained. That is not the case, and certainly not with a topic like loneliness. Here it is about getting back in touch with the (surrounding) world (Umwelt), with other people (Mitwelt), with oneself (Eigenwelt) and with the things towards which people orientate themselves (Uberwelt). Here we are moving into the realm of attitude and action. It is not competence that is called for (although competence is of course helpful) – and above all not performance.

»One must imagine Sisyphus happy«, Camus writes as the last sentence in the »Myth of Sisyphus« (1942, p. 145). To imagine Sisyphus as an exerciser is absurd: »He too concludes that all is well. […] The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.« (ibid.) – It is not a question of what life does for us or what we do for life. But whether our life is worth living. While Sloterdijk focuses on optimising life, on progress, Camus is concerned with quality, with density of life. To have a fulfilled life, to lead a valuable life, that means to give meaning to one’s own life again and again.

Those who are lonely and alone in a leadership position should therefore not so much pursue the question of which skills or methods are now necessary to get out of their misery. Instead, they should simply, but fundamentally, pursue the question of how they can succeed in making authentic contact with people again. This requires self‐​conquest, or also: dedication.

Lonely, but in solidarity

»No man is an island« (»No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.«; Meditation XVII, John Donne, 1624) – this verse can also be read differently: No one is alone. This realisation, however, disappears in the fog of loneliness, which is a mostly insidious process. People do not understand that they are increasingly becoming strangers to themselves through their alienation from others; they do not see themselves in it and consequently cannot understand themselves in it. At this point it helps to look beyond oneself:

Existence is always directed towards the other. Being oneself essentially requires communication with other people. In existential communication from person to person, people come close to each other and deliver themselves to each other (Karl Jaspers). They overcome their fear of the foreign, of otherness, recognise in the other person a human being like themselves and, on this basis, engage in a conversation that remains open in its attitude for what arises in dialogue. In dialogue, a movement arises, a dynamic that guides the participants towards a (common) third that was not »there« before. The requirements of ›existential communication‹ formulated by Jaspers in this regard generate borderline experiences that can lead to existential experience. And this is at the same time the core element of »existential leadership«.

Martin Buber (»I and Thou«, 1923) points out that human beings form their identity primarily in relation to what surrounds them: Only the encounter with a human counterpart, the »you«, or with the material world, the »it«, makes it possible to distinguish the »I« from its environment. The human being gains his (existing) I in the encounter with the (existing) Thou of the other. In the sense of Buber’s saying, »All life is encounter«, the confrontation, the dialogue with the other (as a possibility of self‐​assurance through demarcation and the certainty at the same time of behaving to it and in it) is a necessity for a responsible life in general.

But this is opposed by what often leads to loneliness: »The stubborn pride of man, who wants to be only himself, repels communication. He wants to identify the world with himself and knows only the will: to possess the world. He listens out of curiosity and greed for humanity, cannot bear to show any nakedness or to be put in the position of the inferior. With people he does not seek the relationship of solidarity, he wants to conquer them and have them as his own.« (Jaspers, Philosophy II, p. 91, own translation)

Solidarity? Camus describes, especially in his key philosophical novel The Plague (1947), that the orientation towards the central values of solidarity, friendship and love make overcoming strangeness and hostility, understanding, togetherness and meaning possible in the first place. Solidarity alone would be sufficient for a successful dialogue. The willingness to engage in dialogue grows to the extent that it is recognised that, in principle, the other person’s life is the same as one’s own. Out of this »solidarity of mortals«, the exposed leader can also enter an authentic exchange with others.


»Genuine conversation means stepping out of ›I‹ and knocking on the door of ›you.‹ «
Albert Camus (Diaries)

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