Introverts can be powerful leaders because of — not in spite of — their introversion.
My leadership training class participants had been lively and engaged — the ideal audience you’d want as a facilitator — so I should be leaving the room with the same feeling, right? My heart was full, but the minute I shut my car door, my energy crashed.
For many years, I thought that since I’d spent the majority of my career leading corporate training teams, meetings, and speaking engagements, that meant I was an extrovert. Until I learned I was a true introvert trying to pose as an extrovert, I couldn’t understand why I needed full recovery days of quiet after leading training courses or a day packed with team meetings.
Today, it’s not uncommon for me to strategize my exit so I don’t get bombarded with invitations to happy hour. I’ve learned to set kind boundaries to protect my energy and not apologize for being my true self. I love nothing more than spending my free time snuggled with a blanket, reading, writing, or watching a TV series with my family. In fact, I’ve learned that the more reflection time I take for myself, the more present and effective I can be for people-focused events.
I wish I had learned this sooner.
The World Built for Extroversion
I had an aha moment in 2013 while reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet. She explained how our world is naturally built for extroverts. If your school experience was like mine, you were told to be more outgoing. Sitting home alone wasn’t cool.
Those ideals hold true in the workplace, which are often naturally built for extroversion. We sit through daily meetings that include verbal exchanges of ideas. We now predominantly have open-plan offices with the goal to promote interaction. Societal norms would have you believe that being successful means joining several networking groups and having a packed social calendar.
Extroverts fill their energy bucket by interacting with people — by being in the world, socializing, going to parties, and networking. They generally enjoy making small talk in large groups, so meetings, open offices, and all that social interaction generally fuels them.
Introverts, on the other hand, tend to express their ideas better in writing and enjoy creative activities — alone. After a day filled with interaction or many sensory activities, introverts rebuild their energy stores through solitude or with a close friend or partner.
Growing as a Leader Meant Accepting My Introverted Power
I admit that for many years I forced myself to act as an extrovert because I thought that’s who I should be in order to gain social acceptance as a leader, a coworker, and a friend. But as an introvert, it only drained my power. Constantly being around others took away the precious time that I needed to reflect, generate ideas, strategize, and get curious and creative.
Time alone provides introverts with the sacred ground they need to step into their power and show up as their best selves. A Myers-Briggs assessment further revealed to me how introverted I was as an INTJ, but also how I could leverage my strengths to show up in unique ways. In other words, I realized how valuable I was as a leader because of my introversion.
But getting to that epiphany took time. Because many workplaces promote extroverted characteristics, I believed several myths that kept me from leading as my most confident and creative self for many years. So, let’s talk about how to dispel those misconceptions.
3 Myths That Will Hold You Back as an Introverted Leader
Myth: I need to be an extrovert to be successful.
Truth: I need to be my most authentic self to be successful.
Instead of tapping into their unique introverted genius, good leaders can end up spending their time and energy trying to show up as an extrovert, thinking it’s what will make them more successful. But not all leaders are extroverts. Introverts make up to 50% of the population, and many influential people were introverts who uniquely advocated for their ideas.
For example, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat — and her actions started a movement. Eleanor Roosevelt was described as being shy, yet she led numerous speaking engagements about human rights. Warren Buffet, a famous introvert, regularly uses his simple, understated approach to advocate for successful investment strategies and good decision-making.
For me, a mindset shift occurred when I realized that my level of extroversion was not correlated to my level of confidence or competence. I stepped into my power when I owned this simple and liberating truth — I can be introverted, confident, and competent.
When I feel nervous that I need to conform to someone else’s style or standard, I’ve learned to ask these three questions:
- Who would I be if I approached this as my most creative and confident self?
- What message is important to deliver?
- How can I do it in a way that honors my true self?
Myth: To be seen as credible in meetings, I need to do a lot of talking.
Truth: Credibility is built through thoughtful contributions, inside and outside of meetings.
Ask yourself this question: If talking got things done, then wouldn’t it also be true that all talkers would be great leaders? Embracing this thought, I stopped showing up to meetings as my awkward, overly direct self, which was the result of speaking because I thought I had to speak to be credible. I had to learn that it was okay if I didn’t have an immediate answer to a challenging question or a topic in the meeting. I learned to step into my power as an introverted leader by saying, “That’s a great question. I’d love to give that some thought and come back to you tomorrow with some ideas.”
This approach activates my power of reflection and curiosity, and it gives me time and space to think of a creative answer rather than a hasty one. Without using this approach, I’d often blurt out the first thought that came into my head, only to have 10 better ideas come to me on my commute home. If you’re an introvert, you probably know what I’m talking about.
I would also ask to follow up by email, which once again played to another introvert strength: expressing my ideas better in writing.
Ultimately, credibility is built through taking action on your ideas. At the end of each day, make a list of the ideas you contributed, and note the progress you made on them to help boost your confidence. Finally, express that progress to others (people won’t “just know”) to create credibility and trust that you follow through on your intentions.
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Myth: To be an influential leader, I need to be charming and gregarious.
Truth: To create influence, I need to advocate for my unique ideas.
In our initial goal-setting conversation, many of my coaching clients will tell me they want to improve their charisma so they can be more like their company CEO or another well-respected extroverted leader. However, this comparison often leaves them feeling like they’re not good enough, and ultimately, unqualified to lead.
Over the years I’ve learned that advocacy is not one-size-fits-all. It can be created with a pen, paintbrush, microphone, or even your simple presence. Since the dawn of society, introverts have subtly moved through the world by changing the way we think, writing brilliant novels, inventing game-changing technologies, and so much more.
To help you hone your leadership style, try this journaling exercise. Think about an introverted leader you admire. Notice the themes that arise for you as you write your answers to the following questions:
- In your eyes, how are they influential?
- How do they express themselves?
- How do they advocate for their unique ideas?
- How do they show up in their authentic voice?
The qualities we admire in others tend to also be the same behaviors we desire to cultivate in ourselves. How can you cultivate these same behaviors? Imagine and describe a scenario in which you would show up and advocate for yourself in this way (now, go do that!).
Will the Workplace Ever Catch Up with Introverts?
As we learn more about personality, there’s hope that introversion will one day be valued to the degree it should. In the meantime, it’s important not to force yourself to be an extrovert leader when you’d shine brightest as the introvert you are.
Introverts have a wealth of tools at their disposal to move ideas forward, including forming one-to-one relationships and deep connections, and emphasizing strategic planning. Quietly making waves can happen from generating unique ideas and encouraging constant learning and testing. It wasn’t until I fully embraced my introversion that I started to discover how to make my career meaningful in ways that refueled me.
Introverts have just as much power as extroverts. They complement each other in a way the world needs to bring ideas to life. One is not better than the other, and so much untapped creativity remains inside us when we show up outside our natural preference. So stop believing the myths that are holding you back, and start pursuing your truth.
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