Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. Aristotle
Leading while introverted - it sounds like some sort of illegal activity or horrible affliction, doesn't it? Or perhaps a personality disorder in need of intensive therapy. In our extrovert-centered world, where the noise never seems to stop, those of us who prefer the quiet inner world of thoughts and ideas and enjoy spending time alone are often misunderstood as aloof, shy, and uninterested in high-level leadership opportunities that require constant interaction.
The truth is that introverts simply prefer to listen before they speak and usually don't like to call attention to themselves. Introverts learn by listening to others, and are generally thoughtful, calm, and quiet. They can also be analytical, insightful, and have the potential to be highly effective leaders. Confused yet? Don't be. All you have to remember is that introverts like and need their space and alone time. Those of us who enjoy writing over speaking are not necessarily tortured souls like Faulkner and Hemingway, destined to drown our terrible torment in bourbon or absinthe. When we do have something to say, it is often well-considered, in-depth, and powerful. We don't shout our ambitions from rooftops, but are often quietly determined to succeed.
The greatest difference between introverts and extroverts is where they gain their energy. Extroverts love being around people because it they are energized by interaction with others. Introverts recharge by spending time alone. They prefer time to think and reflect. In terms of leadership, what's not to like about people who will be thoughtful, well prepared, and will first listen and then ask questions to get to the bottom of problems or issues? Depending on the other aspects of their personalities, introverts simply need to be aware of how they come across to others if they choose to pursue positions of leadership. Statistically, it is believed that extroverts comprise about 60% of the population, and introverts about 40%, so introversion is less common than extroversion in the general populace. Those statistics are thought to be consistent across the ranks of executives as well, so four out of ten executive leaders are likely to be introverted.
There are many examples of successful business executives or leaders who have described themselves as introverts, including Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Warren Buffett, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Some of these people have been described as aloof, cautious, and detached, but they are also thought of as intelligent, visionary, and bold. In other words, it isn't necessary to be an extrovert in order to be an outstanding leader. While it can be easy for introverts to be overwhelmed by activity and noise, and overshadowed by their louder, limelight-seeking counterparts, introverts can still thrive and succeed in leadership roles.
So what do introverts need to know about becoming effective leaders and what should extroverts know about how introverted leaders prefer to interact? First, there's plenty of room at the top for all types of personalities. The key is to know your type and be aware of your tendencies and preferences. Both types should know that the constant internal dialogue and thought patterns that most introverts have need to be managed. Writing is a preference for many introverts because it helps to categorize and articulate what can be a tidal wave of thoughts. Seriously, sometimes our brains are bursting. Those are the times when we have to be very careful about speaking our minds!
Introverts can be highly self-contained, and when deep in thought, can come across as dismissive or arrogant. The introverted leader needs to be very aware of his or her surroundings, demeanor, and body language and make an effort to acknowledge and connect with people. A self-aware introvert will consider how he or she is seen and experienced by others, and will seek honest feedback to improve personal interaction skills. One of the strengths of many introverts is the ability to listen and observe. This allows the introverted leader to consider what other people might be thinking. Introverts can do very well when they leverage their desire for intimate connection and get to know people individually. Influence can be quietly exerted by widening the circle of connection one person at a time.
I've learned several valuable things as an introverted leader, such as to always be well prepared for speaking engagements and presentations (this is not generally a problem for introverts as we don't like surprises), to seek out challenges for continued growth (find opportunities to learn and smart friends who will push, I mean, encourage, you to move out of your comfort zone), and to embrace your ability with the written word in order to help you share your best ideas and allow others to get to know you.
Social networking is another opportunity, such as using Twitter or blogging to share information. Twitter is fun with a limit of 140 characters at a time. I keep a journal to track ideas, quotes, things that I want to do or books that I want to read, and potential writing and presentation topics. Introverted leaders should also find quiet time and make the best use of it to reflect and recharge, whether it is early to the office before others arrive, or late after they are gone, or a weekend routine that allows time to think, read, or write. Most introverts know very well when they are at, or close to, their "people limit."
As an introverted leader, if you can show empathy and encouragement to other aspiring introverts, you may help them see and realize their own leadership potential. Just don't exclude the extroverts who will balance out the quiet and keep you laughing in uncomfortably crowded rooms. After all, they have their good qualities and leadership potential, too.
Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome!
Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-sparrow/.