Author & Leadership Developer discusses distraction, solitude for leaders

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 10:16pm

Mike Erwin, CEO of the Character and Leadership Center, speaks about distractions in the age of information and the necessity of focus in leadership in Weill Hall Wednesday..

Mike Erwin, CEO of the Character and Leadership Center, speaks about distractions in the age of information and the necessity of focus in leadership in Weill Hall Wednesday.. Buy this photo
Michael Bagazinski/Daily

Michael S. Erwin, CEO of the leadership development institution Character & Leadership Center, presented to about 100 people in the Annenberg Auditorium of the Ford School of Public Policy on the topic of, “In A Distracted World, Solitude is Practice for Tomorrow’s Leaders.” The event was the product of the collaboration of University of Michigan Athletics, The Barger Leadership Institute and the LSA Opportunity Hub, along with other organizations. 

Erwin, a New York native, graduated from The U.S. Military Academy at West Point with a degree in Economics in 2002. After three tours in Afghanistan, he continued his education at the University of Michigan, where he studied positive psychology and leadership from 2009-2011. With his diverse academic background, he founded the community-based combat veteran support non-profit called the “Team Red, White & Blue.” He also founded the non-profit “The Positivity Project,” which focuses on empowering youth with the knowledge to build positive relationships with themselves and others. 

Erwin presented his book “Lead Yourself First,” and explained the importance of solitude in a world oversaturated with distractions. He said avoiding distractions is a crucial step in becoming a better leader. According to Erwin, the constant use of technology renders the average person perpetually stimulated and vulnerable to distractions.

“When you look at the data the amount of information that the average mind processes today versus just 30 years ago, it is six times more,” Erwin said.

Erwin described social media applications as a proponent of the “fear of missing out” phenomena, which drive people to fill time with more hollow technology based interactions and an over-involved social calendar.

“Especially this is relevant for undergraduates and graduate students. When you start thinking about the role that social media has played,” Erwin said. “It is very easy to create this anxiety around not being there. It is having a great impact on how we feel about our relationships and how we feel in our daily lives.” 

Erwin described how email inboxes overflowing with academic and work-related tasks push the brain to multitask. Erwin explains how multi-tasking, a traditionally valued ability in a leader, has been proven to decrease overall quality of performance by 50 percent. 

“When you have to do two things that require your conscious effort at the same time, your performance struggles significantly,” Erwin said.

According to Erwin, modern day leaders face the pressure to stay activated in a state of productivity and respond to every stimulus. Erwin posits the modern dilemma for leaders is not the inability to find opportunities to lead, but to seek moments of reflection and to seek solitude. 

“Most people think that solitude as a place where you need to go out on your own,” Erwin said. “What we really did was say that it is a psychological state where your mind focuses on its own thoughts, free of distraction.”

LSA senior Lexi Funk attended the event, and agreed with Erwin on the importance of solitude, telling The Daily it could be beneficial in working with other people.  

“If you try to apply solitude and to find it in your life, it can really benefit you so you are in a place where you can help others,” Funk said.

Erwin urged the audience to view integrating solitude into one’s life as a process rather than an immediate habit for both the introverted and extroverted. Erwin cited mindful meditation, physical exercise or simply a 15-minute interaction cleanse during the day as steps toward training the mind in solitude and focus. 

“If you are someone that struggles with this, you cannot start with a grandiose goal,” Erwin said. “You have to be able to train your brain to focus. You incrementally grow. It’s going to feel uncomfortable.”

Engineering junior Alan Gorbev told The Daily she believes these methods are worthwhile, especially with the busy schedules University students tend to have.  

“With the demanding schedule that (University of Michigan students) have, we want to spend our free time with those we care about,” Gorbev said.