Introverted leaders can rewrite the script, allowing their teams to slow down and do things right the first time.
It took me a long time to get here, but I can finally say that I am a proud introverted leader. From my active listening skills to my ability to really think things through — along with many other positive characteristics — my introversion is a strength. More introverts like me should step up and start leading teams, because it is not as intimidating as you may think.
I know, that’s a bold statement to make in a world that is dominated by the extrovert ideal. In the last week alone, I’ve had two occasions to defend our introverted way of being as not flawed, just different.
The first conversation went something like this:
“I am a leadership coach who works with introverted leaders to help them find their voice at work and build their confidence as a leader.”
“Oh, so you help them learn how to be more extroverted?”
And the second conversation started:
“So, do you think you’ll ever stop being an introvert?”
Both people had the best of intentions, but it struck home how entrenched the idea is in North American culture that extroverts are “normal” and introverts are somehow deficient. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I have seen occasions time and again where introverts have a unique ability to lead some teams better than their extroverted peers.
Let me explain.
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What Is the ‘Extrovert Ideal’?
Susan Cain gives a great explanation of how the extrovert ideal became the default in North America in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She shares how the move from a farming-dominated society to one based in sales caused us to value different qualities — namely, charisma and magnetism. This ideal overtook the culture, and suddenly people were learning to sell themselves, as well as their products.
This new outlook, of course, favors the extrovert.
I saw a lot of examples of the extrovert ideal in my business education. Our classes were dominated by presentations, mandatory networking, and class participation marks. It was a constant barrage of stimulation. Something must have been “wrong” with me if I couldn’t attend one networking event after another without feeling exhausted, right? I felt like the odd one out for wanting to get away from all the activity and spend my time quietly learning instead.
The pressure was on for any introverts in the room to get off the bus or learn to “improve ourselves” and become more extroverted. Cue the self-doubt, self-loathing, and attempts at self-improvement.
When I entered the working world, the same messages were reinforced. Although I’d found my way to a more introvert-dominated field, I still watched the more extroverted among us being promoted and holding leadership positions. I watched my mentors act like extroverts to fit the image of a strong leader.
Why We Need Introvert Leaders
After a few promotions and a lot of flexing, I got lucky to work for someone who did something nobody had done before: He agreed that the system was flawed and told me not to change to fit in. Can you imagine? He actually encouraged me to embrace my strengths as an introvert and lead my team the way I knew they should be led, not the way I thought others would want to see me lead them.
Suddenly, being a leader felt easier.
I stopped trying to be like the other managers in my organization and embraced my desire for calm environments. I scaled back team meetings and replaced them with one-on-one connections instead. When we did need a meeting, I optimized the attendee list to bring only the minimum required people so the discussions didn’t get unwieldy. I gave the team more opportunities for focused work and permission to decline meetings if they were feeling overwhelmed. Finally, I discouraged “knee-jerk” reactions and rewarded deep thought into issues instead. If someone came up with a new insight days after a meeting, we dug into it and figured out if it changed any of the decisions we’d made instead of penalizing them for not thinking of it quickly enough.
My team thrived.
Turns out, I was leading a team of introverts. We did a lot of complex, focused work, which attracted a team of people that were more like me. When they worked under extroverted leaders, both people needed to flex to work together. With an introverted leader, though, there was less flexing required. (And did you know many U.S. presidents have been introverts, from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt, among others)?
Just like representation is important for other measures of diversity, we need representation in the highest ranks for introverts, too. We need organizations that accept and value the qualities of introverts, as well as extroverts, and identify when an introvert is actually the best person for the job.
Do you ever struggle to know what to say?
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Specialist Teams Love Introverts
In my experience, one of the areas where introverted leaders shine most is in leading specialist teams. These are teams of experts who often have deep experience in their specialty and rely on their leader to provide them with a vision, organizational context, and freedom to do what they know is best.
Introverted leaders can support these teams with their natural tendency to leave space for others to contribute and their preference for thinking deeply about issues. I have seen multiple specialists shut down when they come to a meeting with a lot of detailed ideas about a topic, only to have their manager take up all the air-time talking about what they think should happen.
Remember, Introverts Thrive With Complex Tasks
Since introverts prefer to dive deep on topics, they also thrive with more complex tasks. These are areas of work that require a lot of effort to untangle a web of information (or relationships) to determine how to move forward appropriately. When people act on impulse in these situations, things don’t go well.
Introverted leaders can support teams working in complex areas by encouraging them to slow down and think things through. The pace of corporate life can be intense, and some leaders make every task feel urgent. My experience, though, is that urgency is the destroyer of quality.
In the project management world, we talk about the triple constraint, which is often visualized as a three-legged stool. The legs of the stool are schedule, cost, and scope. As the saying goes, “Good, fast, or cheap? Choose two.”
When we’re working on complex initiatives, and we default to always working urgently, we are limiting our choices to either good or cheap. We may not want to admit it, but the extrovert default for speed pushes us to sacrifice either good or cheap in the interest of fast.
As I’ve often told my team, fast doesn’t matter if what you’re delivering is poor quality. Rework is expensive. It costs money, morale, and ultimately time. Introverted leaders can rewrite the script, allowing their teams to slow down and do things right the first time.
Diversity Matters — Put More Introverts in Leadership Positions
Finally, diversity matters. We’ve made huge strides in including members of diverse groups in decision-making roles within organizations. One of the areas that I’ve seen lacking, though, is diversity of thought.
This doesn’t just mean introverts. It can be any number of other ways of thinking that deviate from the norm within the culture. We need people in leadership positions who have brains that work differently, as well as people who have different backgrounds and experiences.
All the arguments for diversity in other areas apply — diverse teams make better decisions and they offer employees representation, as well as hope that they can one day hold a leadership position themselves. When we’re only allowing one type of person to climb to the highest levels of organizations (hello, extroverts), what are we missing out on?
So, to all my fellow introverts out there, I encourage you to start sharing your introversion proudly. Stop apologizing and start educating instead.
If you’re in a leadership position already, take the time to share your experience with your team, and other leaders in your organization, and explain why you lead the way you do. Advocate for your introverted peers and value the diversity within your own team.
And if you’re not a leader yet, consider becoming one. You don’t have to change, you just have to shine by using your introverted strengths to your advantage.
If you’re an introverted leader who wants to find your voice at work, contact me to talk about how leadership coaching can support you to embrace your introvert leadership style.
You might like:
- The Extrovert Ideal Isn’t the Only Way of Existing
- 4 Key Traits of Effective Introvert Leaders
- U.S. Presidents Who Were Introverts (And What Makes Them Great)
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