The Myth of the Solitary Leader

I always thought I was the smartest person in the room.

Myth of the Solitary Leader - Matt McWilliams

A leader working individually will usually be slower to make a decision than a cooperative group.
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OK, so I still struggle with that major fault, but when I first became a leader seven years ago, my ego was uncontainable. To make matters worse, I based my vision of leadership on what I call “the myth of the solitary leader.”

To me, leadership was personified not by the coach getting hands-on with his team but by icons such as Bill Gates secluding himself in a cabin for a week to think big things. That was my vision…the solitary leader who single-handedly uses his genius to solve every problem, launch every new initiative, and change the world. I would, in my dreams at least, become a superhero, a caped crusader for my causes, and surely everyone would buy in to everything that I wanted to do.

The only problem was that I was wrong. Very wrong.

That minor detail aside, my vision of me as a solitary leader still burned brightly in my mind. I wanted so bad to be the smartest person in the room. To be the one with all the ideas, to be the one people relied on and saved the day. I wanted to be the one the teacher called on…wait, what happened there?

Read those last two sentences again. Does all of this really go back to childhood?

I think so. I wanted to be the one the teacher called on. I wanted all the glory for myself and I wanted to individually be able to answer every question and impress the teacher (and fellow students) with my academic prowess.

Somehow years after my 16-year stint in academia ended, I found myself still wanting to impress the teacher (my boss) and my fellow students (other team members). I was a solitary leader.

The only problem with being a solitary leader is that, by definition, a leader cannot be solitary. A leader needs people.

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I recently read a 2002 study done by behavioral scientist Patrick Laughlin and his colleagues that scientifically proved that groups working together to find a solution outperform the best problem solver working alone. What they found was that many leaders (often the “smartest person” in the group) know that they are the smartest and most-experienced group member and fail to seek help or input from other team members.

The research proved that the best (smartest, most experienced) leader working individually will almost always be slower to make a decision than a cooperative group. They will also be incorrect more often. But why?

There are three main reasons solitary leaders fail at decision making compared to a group:

1. Varying perspectives.

Solitary leaders cannot match the varying perspectives, life experiences, and wisdom of a cooperative group, particularly if they are a part of the group. Other people’s input and questioning activates thinking processes that we are simply incapable of activating when working alone.

2. Speed

Solitary leaders are slower. There is a simple scientific reason for this. Groups possess a powerful advantage known as parallel processing, meaning they can process different parts of a task at the same time, while a solitary thinker must perform each task sequentially.

3. Failure to get buy-in

Solitary leaders struggle to get buy-in, which leads to doubt. Even when solitary leaders do quickly arrive at the correct decision (and believe me, I did on occasion), I was so hampered by doubts of getting buy-in, that my once firm, definitive decision was soon muddied by “what ifs” and worries about how to convince so-and-so that this was the right thing. Groups that achieve a decision together rarely have to deal with this.

Getting input from your team is not decision making by committee. The ultimate responsibility for all decisions rests on the leader. But the process of getting input is critical to getting varying insights, speeding up the process, and achieving buy-in.

Who is your vision of a leader? Is he/she a solitary leader or more of a group leader?

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  • Studies like the one you cited are yet another reason why I fight and rail against the whole trend toward virtual workers. There’s just no substitute for people sharing spaces to encourage them to share thoughts. Team-building can occur at a distance, but it’s not quite the same and it’s significantly slower and takes an order of magnitude more effort. For my money, throw everyone into a team room with laptops and comfy chairs and see what happens. Give them caves to retreat into when they need some away time, but make sure the commons is the focus of their daily activities — team meetings, status boards, passive information radiators, those sorts of things.

    Okay, I know, instead of talking about leadership, I soapboxed about virtual workers again. Sorry. But I absolutely agree with you, great things come when you work in community and harmony with others.

    • Preach it, Bret, preach it!

      You are more than welcome to use this as your soapbox anytime :)

      Work environment is a part of leadership so you were right on topic!

  • Great post. I use to think that as well. Our society promotes the loan gunman, but the great leaders those with great teams. Like our friend Dave Ramsey, who’s not afraid to put his people out in front of him, i.e. Chris LoCurdo.

    • Good example with Dave. He built a great team from the very get-go and I’ve never heard him talk about using solitude for decision-making…in fact quite the opposite. One of his favorite Scriptures is Proverbs 15:22:

      “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”

    • So true Jim. Every movie depicts that one hero who comes in and saves the day!

  • A great leader must depend on his (or her) team – that’s the advantage of building the team carefully so you have different personality types and skill levels – everyone brings a different perspective and helps the leader made a better decision. You also get greater buy in that way too, I think. Great post!

    • Thank you Carol. Funny you mention personality types…I have two posts coming up about that. :)

  • Wow. Great post my friend. I can see hints of myself in your description. I too, find myself dreaming of being that kind of leader! It’s hard to overcome!
    The ideal leader? I was very impressed awhile back with the Entreleadership podcast interview with Joe Scarlett. He mentioned that you can’t be a leader without delegating, giving up some decision making power. THAT makes a great leader, respecting and delegating decision making responsibility.
    Thanks for holding up the mirror for me this morning Matt!

    • Dude, you mention a mirror and expect me not to take the softball? Just kidding.

      I remember that episode very well and he is spot on. It’s impossible. Otherwise you are just the best worker, not a leader. I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room. Bear Bryant said: “I don’t hire anybody not brighter than I am. If they’re not smarter than me, I don’t need them.”

      So true.

      • I’m just trying to help a sub-.200 hitter get one over the fence 😉

        I love that, if you don’t delegate you’re just the best worker!!
        I don’t wanna be just the fastest hamster on the wheel…I wanna own the wheel 😉

  • Matt, this is a great post, and I can see the influence in your life from the people we both respect. I think my vision of a leader is both solitary and a group leader. The solitary moments are important for discovering ourselves, and to connect with God. After we are connected, then we go out there and spread the love. And let me be clear: Solitary from other people, never 100% alone. Leave men to be in the presence of the Lord.

  • A challenging post. As a leader, it can be easy to take on the mindset that I can make every decision and I can do everything without delegating. God has put people around us to share in our leadership and to share in our responsibility. We can try, but doing things with others is always way better than doing things alone.

    • And not just delegating, but collaborating.

      I think one of the hardest things for me was giving my team TIME to think and help me make decisions.

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