4 Lessons From an Introverted Leader

An introvert leader speaks in a meeting

Don’t let being an introvert stop you from being a leader — let it be what defines you and use your “quiet” strengths to your advantage.

Leadership scares me. For an introvert such as myself, everything about a leadership role makes me want to run in the opposite direction. I would never voluntarily be the person that takes charge or speaks up when something needs to be said. Nor would I tackle difficult conversations (or other things) expected of a leader.

Nuh-uh. No way. Not me.

So I shied away from leadership as much as I could. As the years passed, however, it eventually caught up to me and I found myself stepping into the shoes of a potential leader. Though being a leader is not what I expected, nor am I fully “there” yet, this is what I’ve learned so far.

4 Lessons From an Introverted Leader

1. Expect to lead (even when you don’t expect to).

I work as a software developer, and have been for the past several years. I had assumed my job description meant I would sit in front of my computer all day and code. And that is where my strengths lie. As an introvert, it was the perfect job for me — sitting alone with my thoughts all day and solving problems in my head and translating them to code, all with minimal interaction with human beings.

This is where I was wrong, and where many of us are. The fundamental assumption I made here was, as a developer, I was there to solve problems in isolation. The stark truth is that, in software, coding (i.e., the part of the problem I can solve on my own) is a very small piece of the puzzle.

There is so much that comes before that. We first begin with trying to understand the problem our clients are facing. This involves engaging with clients — and actually talking to them — and understanding their business problems. Then it entails bringing this information back to the technical team that will build the software solution.

Once the technical team has business context on the problem, next begins “solutioning,” which again, can’t be done in isolation. And once some ideas for solutions have been discussed, a plan is put forth that the team can begin to work with. (Of course, we introverts excel at planning!)

When the team begins work and the programmers are ready for development, even then, there are lots of discussions that take place internally, all geared toward ensuring that the team delivers high-quality software as efficiently as possible.

What I thought would be a solo job of writing code and creating software turned out to involve a lot of people behind the scenes, collaborating and working together as a team. And, to be done well, it needs strong-willed, sensible leaders, who only want what’s best for the team and the software we’re building.

As much as I would like to be a one-person team, the people around me, how I work with them, what I learn from them, and how I work as a team are key to growth and success for the software we’re building. And the more experience I gain, even as an introvert, the more I learn how to lead a team forward.

2. Be your own kind of leader.

My image of the “perfect” leader was one that was confident, loud, and strong — the ideal extrovert. I, however, was the exact opposite of that. I am a rather quiet person, I do not like conflict, I shy away from difficult conversations, and I never really felt I had the ability to motivate a team.   

So for a very long time, my efforts in trying to be more of a “leader” meant I focused on all the wrong things. Instead of trying to be better at steering the team toward good code practices, for instance, I was more worried about how I presented myself, about how I spoke, and if it was strong or convincing enough. And, after each meeting, I ended up not feeling good enough and questioning my leadership skills (or lack thereof). 

I went through a phase where I had given up and went back to my silo of writing code. 

Time went on, and I was put on a team which required dealing with a slightly difficult client. I was one of two people on the team. My teammate was an experienced tech lead, and what impressed me was that he was as introverted as I am (probably even more so). 

How was this introvert an experienced leader that was handling a difficult account on his own?

I was intrigued, to say the least, and watched him closely. In meetings or discussions, he didn’t put on the shoes of an extrovert. Instead, he stayed true to himself. The strongest tool in his arsenal seemed to be his passion for technology, and the knowledge and experience he had built over the years.

I was blown away.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but the fact that I saw an introverted leader in action changed my whole take on leadership. I talked to him about this, and his advice was this: Be your own kind of leader, but be strong.

To him, being a “strong” leader did not mean being loud or aggressive in discussions — it meant being strong in knowledge. His advice continued: Gathering the technical knowledge so you can help your clients get the software solution they need makes you the strongest person in the group. Focus on this, and let that be your tool. As long as you have that, you will be able to speak more confidently, and that should be what drives you. Everything else will slowly fall into place.

That bit of advice was a turning point for me. And it brought me back into leadership, with a new outlook on how I could navigate this career path. After all, if he could do it, and some U.S. presidents could do it (like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt), and some first ladies could do it (like Jill Biden and Michelle Obama), so could I!

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3. Grow into being a leader — it’s an evolving process.

The first time I was asked to play more of a leadership role, I remember being pulled into a meeting with faces that I usually saw only once a month, at meetings where account updates were given.

I left that meeting feeling very overwhelmed. My overthinking brain had me make lists of things I had to do and topics I should read about and a million things that I wanted to get done before the next day… and on and on.

My list was not a practical one, and achieving everything on the list would be near impossible (especially within the timeframe I had in mind).

I made the mistake of not letting myself gradually identify areas where I could slowly take more responsibility. Instead, because someone higher up told me it was time, I tried to do everything at once — and that turned out to not be practical.

I overwhelmed myself, and I learned this lesson the hard way. But my advice, in retrospect, is this: You do not become a leader overnight. You grow into one. Find areas where you can contribute, and when you feel confident there, pick up another piece. Keep at it, slowly and steadily, and then you’ll keep growing in your leadership role(s).

4. The journey might be tough, but it’s worth it.

If you are an introvert, I understand your inner nature might be to shy away from roles of leadership, because of the nature of the role. That is what I’ve always done, and still do. So in my opinion, I do feel the journey will be much harder for us introverts. 

But as an introverted leader, you bring your own unique set of skills to the table. You are resourceful, thoughtful, observant, very talented, and a powerhouse in your field (among many other things!).

Hone that talent. Use it. Find your strengths, because I guarantee you, they’re something that you can use to help others and steer them toward success.

Do not let being an introvert stop you from being a leader. Instead, let it be what defines you.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

As an introvert, you actually have the ability to be an amazing conversationalist — even if you’re quiet and hate small talk. To learn how, we recommend this online course from our partner Michaela Chung. Click here to check out the Introvert Conversation Genius course.

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