The Solitude of the Defining Moment

Tom Remlov

Tom Remlov shares his thoughts about the phrase “it is lonely at the top” and explains why solitude is what defines a king.

It’s lonely at the top – how often hasn’t this truism been cited at me, solemnly, sympathetically, on the supposition that, left on my own as the final arbiter of the matter at hand, I must be feeling bereft.

But not even when I really needed the sympathy, when the media were at their most vitriolic or employees appeared at their most belligerent, did I feel that way: Alone does not necessarily mean deserted. Solitude does not equal desolation.

Isn’t there, rather, a most precious freedom – a release – in knowing you’re alone? Real, recognised, permitted and accepted solitude – isn’t this the quintessential condition humaine, and as such a position to be cherished?

When some years back Jonas Gahr Støre was having to decide whether to assume the reins of the Labour Party after Jens Stoltenberg, he took to the hills – by himself. Ever since this hike has been the source of much mirth: “How Norwegian,” the pundits have chuckled – when the man was to make what would perhaps be the most momentous decision of his life, he sought his own company, literally at the top of a mountain! Like a troll.

To me, however, it was like he staged the reality of what was awaiting him. He felt this dizzying moment between yes and no could only be executed alone.

This is what I call the defining moment – that moment at which a whole new reality is defined. When you move from one position into one hitherto unknown, and from which there is no going back.

It sounds grand, and therefore rare, but in fact such moments occur all the time in the daily life of a leader, in any organisation. The challenge is to recognise them as such. And handle them with the attendant sense of responsibility. In my life the most obvious and visible have been each time I have finally decided on a play for inclusion in a repertoire, or a script for a film.

No doubt Støre had been consulting left, right and centre – as it were – before he went off. And made sure to involve all manner of stakeholders in his deliberations. Such a process of consultation and involvement is now the order of the day in the contemporary workplace. And the received wisdom, in the popular mind as well as in management literature, is that it will soften, and ideally remove altogether, that regrettable sense of loneliness at the top.

It will not, though. It can not, and more to the point: it should not. The clue is responsibility. The simple point is: shared responsibility is no responsibility.

A decision is that which is made between one heartbeat and the next. It is a leap of faith – however well founded in a preceding process. And that same heart is also the one that has to be answerable for what was decided – responsible. Indeed, it is precisely because one person in this way stands up to be counted – to being accountable – that everyone else involved and affected can take part with complete freedom, both before and after the dice is cast.

The ultimate residue, that you as that leader will know this was your doing, this was you giving life a shape, means that the solitary moment of decision really is living life to its absolute fullest. It is a moment of pure vitality.

How can this be a burden?

It’s a privilege.

True, it’s a strain, an effort, a source of worry and perennial uncertainty, such as a measuring of one’s potential and talent always will be.

But to be brought that close to the actual meaning of existence – no less – is first and foremost a gift.

The Solitude of Kings – it sounds like a recurring theme in Shakespeare. It has that commanding yet melancholy ring of tragedy, of the brave heart carrying his sorrowful cross. In fact, the phrase is nowhere to be found in the poet’s work. And of course not – to a man of his time it would be stating the obvious. Solitude is what defines a king.

I really could not find a proper English equivalent for my core idea – ‘talent for solitude’ came nearest, while ‘ability to be alone’ felt too plodding, and ‘capacity for self-reliance’ both a bit reductive and a bit forced. So I turned to Google, and after a bit I – inevitably – landed in the cradle of academic discourse: German. Here the philosopher Odo Marquard had created his own conceptual term: ‘Einsamkeitsfähigkeit’. The Germans will generate a compound for anything, making theorising so much more fun. But in this case it set me on a direct track back into my own linguistic sphere, and there it was, the word I’d been pining for, lightly alliterative and richly meaningful, indeed, I find it almost onomatepoetic: Ensomhetsevne. That’s what a king must possess.

Published 14. July 2021

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