Leading for Introverts
January 26, 2022
2020 and 2021 were the years of the introvert. And if you weren’t an introvert before, maybe you became one: Staying inside and working remotely has pushed all of us introverts further into our introversion, and those who were extroverted or straddling the line between the two have waded deeper into their own internal thoughts and feelings. Meanwhile, professional communication and conversations have become constant albeit distant as we incorporate technology such as Slack or Teams into our day-to-day. So, how do we as introverts live in a world of endless communication but still have the energy to devote to those we are leading?
First, let’s get some things straight. Introverts aren’t categorically shy or timid; we just need time to recharge or internalize our thoughts after engaging with others. We need time and space to look inward and process what we’ve just heard. Conversely, an extrovert is someone who becomes energized while communicating and interacting with others, so they are less likely to need time to process thoughts and emotions on their own.
I have observed that there is often an unintentional bias towards individuals who are outgoing and overly communicative, a.k.a. extroverts, when it comes to leadership roles. These are the people who get noticed, who get the attention, who get promoted. Unfortunately, this means we introverts may be overlooked or feel pressure to act more extroverted to compete for leadership positions. I have thought this for years, and have forced myself to be more extroverted, but only recently I have realized that I no longer have to do this. If you Google “famous introverted leaders,” the list is endless and includes so many heroes in the art, business and political world like Eleanor Roosevelt, Michael Jordan, Bill Gates, and Audrey Hepburn, just to name a few. These individuals utilized their introverted traits to become the leader they wanted to be, and we can do the same. As introverts, we get the chance to do something we love to do, which is look internally and think about what our greatest strengths are, but then we must also externally apply these strengths as leaders.
To do so, we need to focus on the leadership styles that are conducive to our personality. More specifically, Service, Coaching, Hands-off, and Democratic styles all marry well with introverted personalities. For example, back in the day when I played softball, I was never the one to give my teammates a pump-up speech or be vocal from the dugout. However, I was the one who consistently showed up every single day, engaged in meaningful conversations with the coaches, served my teammates, and worked my butt off at every practice. Before long, I was using my strengths to become a Service-styled leader on the team and I was seen as an equal to my outspoken counterpart.
Moreover, introverts can leverage our skills to excel in areas where others may not, such as deeply thinking about and assessing what our team members need and where growth is needed. We are able to observe what others need to succeed while also thinking about what to say and when it’s best to communicate because we have thoroughly thought through exactly what we want to say. Remember, good communication is not the same as more communication, and this is where we as introverts can shine.
Introverts Under-Represented in Leadership
“From a recent Myers-Briggs global research sample, about 57% of the world prefers Introversion. Even though there are significantly more people with this preference, Introverts are vastly underrepresented in top leadership. In the US, only 39% of top executives and senior leaders prefer Introversion. This may be partially due to Extrovert’s tendencies to think out loud and talk more frequently.”
The Myers-Briggs Company, 2020
So, let’s talk practically. I think there are a few key tips introverts can consider as they strive to be better and stronger leaders:
Setting aside time before or after long meetings is extremely helpful. A five-minute break to step outside for fresh air, moving to a secluded spot in your office or home, or blocking off 30 minutes on your calendar to work independently can be game-changing. This gives you time to process and recharge. Even knowing that I’ll have that time for myself gives me the capacity to do more. When I force myself to be a part of too much communication because I think it will produce better results, I usually end up crashing and burning. And nobody wants a leader who often crashes and burns!
Another solution for introverted leaders is to learn and use the communication style that gives you the least amount of mental and emotional fatigue. Perhaps it is one-on-one conversations with the people you are leading, or emailing, or online chatting. This year in particular, I’ve found that emails don’t drain me, but video calls with more than one other person absolutely wipe me out. If you’re like me, you can try to minimize the number of video calls by writing clear and thorough emails instead. Modern communication tools can be an introvert’s best friend, or worst enemy.
Finally, the last piece of advice is acknowledging that we may create mental barriers for ourselves so that we can consciously overcome them. Many times, introverts may preclude themselves from opportunities because we think we aren’t a good fit. We must work hard to look past the combination of outside expectations and the internal critique that we battle with every day. If we think, “Oh I’m not like (extroverted person), so I can’t be a leader,” then we must remind ourselves that our unique traits are also our strengths. So, the next time you see a promotion or leadership opportunity, don’t automatically say no—go for it! Just remember to schedule some time to recharge after your killer interview.