In the organization where I worked as a leader for almost 38 years, it seemed that the vast majority of leaders were extroverts, and that particular personality type was most valued in a leader. The question we must ask is whether an introvert can be a successful leader.
First of all, we need to know what we mean when we say someone is an introvert. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of an introvert is “a reserved or shy person who enjoys spending time alone.” That definition doesn’t seem to scream “leader” to me. In comparison, an extrovert is defined as “a gregarious and unreserved person”.
Although I would occasionally have people challenge my assertion that I am an introvert, I had no doubt. For example, on family vacations, I would rather be by myself in a canoe, on a bike or reading a book, than I would be with the rest of the group playing a game. My wife Tammy even reminds me when I was too shy as a teenager to order a pizza on the phone. Now that’s shy!The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, according to their website “was designed to help you better understand what makes you tick, how you relate to others, and how you can benefit from this knowledge in everyday life.” I remember taking a free online version of the MBTI, similar to this one, about fifteen years ago, and getting my results, which indicated in part that my type (INTJ) did not make good leaders. I was crushed.
Even though I’ve held a variety of different leadership positions (business, industry, church) and see leadership as a calling now, it wasn’t something that I went looking for. My start in leadership came when working for a cleaning contract company back in the late 1970’s. I was working as a general cleaner for minimum wage while going to college. After a while, I was asked to be a floor supervisor, then a building supervisor, then an area supervisor/manager. Before I knew it, I was standing up and leading crew meetings in front of 60 people. But I was shy and so this was out of my comfort zone.
I grew up shy, and still clearly remember a comment on a junior high school report card that stated “Bill lacks confidence”. I’ll admit that those who are very shy, sensitive, and don’t have confidence in themselves, most likely will not make effective leaders.
I used to look at my introversion almost like something was wrong with me. That changed when I read Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which includes a tremendous amount of medical research and case studies. I was encouraged by the book, particularly her writing “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself”. All of a sudden, I no longer felt that something was wrong with me, or that I was different.
As an introvert, I found that I was more comfortable in some situations as a leader than in others. For example, I was usually very comfortable in “One on One” meetings with my team members or mentees. However, in larger group settings, or with those I didn’t know well, I was definitely less comfortable.
Introverts who are shy and lack confidence will have trouble being good leaders. Leaders need to be able to cast a vision and inspire their teams to follow them. They also need to be able to effectively deliver those tough messages, demonstrating leadership courage.
Feeling that leadership was my calling, I found ways to manage around those situations in which I felt out of my comfort zone. How did I do that?
First, you need to demonstrate courage. As a leader you need to be a successful communicator. For an introvert who may not be comfortable leading meetings, communicating with those you don’t know well, or trying to influence others, it can at times be almost fearful to think about it. But hang in there, persevere and push forward. I think of playing little league baseball. I was a left-handed hitter and was fearful of getting hit by pitched balls, especially from left-handed pitchers. I would find myself bailing out of the batter’s box. Introverts can do the same, bailing out in those situations outside of their comfort zone. But have courage, hold your ground, and stay in the batter’s box.
Second, learn from your mentors and leaders. I’ve previously written about things I’ve learned to do from my leaders here. Learning how to navigate through those situations that are out of your comfort zone as an introvert would certainly be something that your mentors and leaders could help you with.
Third, know that things do eventually get easier the more you do them. For me, the more prepared I was for running a meeting, conducting a performance review, or holding a crucial conversation, for example, the more confident I would be in my abilities to do that task successfully.
Fourth, practicing servant leadership, where I saw myself as serving my team members, helping them to succeed, trying to catch them doing something right, etc., helped me take the focus off of myself and onto them and their success.
If you can successfully manage around those situations as a leader when you are out of your comfort zone, you can be a successful leader.
So, can an introvert be a successful leader? It depends. If you are overly shy, and lack confidence in your abilities, your team will as well. However, be encouraged that it is possible to manage around those situations in which you are not the most comfortable.
If you are a leader who is an introvert, I’d love to hear how you manage around those situations outside of your comfort zone.