What I Learned Whilst Taming My Inclination to be an Introvert
There has been a recurring theme in all my appraisals so far:
— You are too quiet; you need to speak up and be more confident!
This is my first year after being promoted to a Director and the pressure of having to navigate a complex role with this ‘confidence stigma’ motivated me to take some actions. I read a lot about confidence and leadership before I realised that it is not confidence I am lacking in after all… It is just my personality type! I am an introvert!
“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race” — Susan Cain
I now feel I have carved out a nice space for myself as an introvert. It has been a long process, with lots of trial and error, but like most things, the more you practise, the better you get at it. In this post I am going to share ten career-changing lessons about quiet leadership that I learned, in the hope that someone might benefit from them.
But first, a little intro on introversion…
You don’t have to be loud to be a great leader
You are a walking contradiction: On the one hand you are an introvert; you prefer having alone time to help you focus and think deeply. On the other hand, you have a leadership role, you are required to wear multiple hats to handle many projects, manage up, down and across the organisation, and yet you are expected to be accessible at all times.
What does it take to be a good leader? Leaders are universally perceived as strong, confident, charismatic, independent thinkers — ‘movers’ and ‘shakers’. These qualities are associated with people who are more extroverted, since extroverts exude confidence in large groups, they are highly competent at bringing people together and are naturally potent and assertive.
Can you see where I am going with this?
This conventional wisdom is not necessarily true and the two terms, leadership and extroversion, are not actually synonymous. If you are an introvert, like me, there is good news:
Introverts do indeed make equally good, and in some ways, better leaders!
As research has shown and authors like Susan Cain and Jennifer Kahnweiler have extensively elaborated on, in an increasingly fast paced world we need thoughtful, observant and ‘quiet’ leaders to guide us to the right destination, in a smooth and efficient way.
In the business world, as Forbes claims, 40% of executives consider themselves to be introverted indeed — “How is this possible?”, you may wonder since our business culture favours traits like gregariousness, assertiveness and outspokenness over reflectiveness, deliberation and solitude.
Introverts’ listening and observation skills make them excellent leaders
Introverts are naturally skilled active listeners — they don’t jump to conclusions before they fully process all the information, but they provide carefully considered insights instead. They prefer having meaningful conversations and delving deep into a subject, which exhibits their analytical thinking. In addition to that, they use their observant nature to ‘read’ the audience in terms of body language and other cues, and they are able to make a mental note as events unfold.
Their calm and collected demeanour provides reassurance to those around them, especially during times of pressure, and also they can make decisions without getting too emotionally involved. Their innate ability to focus for long periods of time means that they deliver high quality results as well as being creative.
“Quiet leadership is not an oxymoron!” — Susan Cain
Introverts can be at a disadvantage at work
Whether it is a meeting, a townhall, or an after-work event, introverts prefer not to be in the spotlight. Even if the attention is positive, they fray and try to get it over with quickly, say only what is needed and remain quiet until prompted. This results in being overlooked by their bosses over other more outspoken colleagues. They ultimately lose out on opportunities to build relationships — “it is not what you know, but who you know” after all!
It is crucial for introverts to regularly work in solitude, but this is not always possible in an open plan office. Using noise cancelling headphones to escape from the office hubbub and sharpen their concentration can be perceived as anti-social and also they might miss out on important conversations.
Furthermore, introverts communicate via tech. Yes, it may be more efficient to walk to someone’s desk to ask a question, but they feel more comfortable communicating in writing; email especially gives them time to read, understand and formulate the perfect response. This is not always the best communication style and is frowned upon when it comes to resolving issues swiftly.
On a final note, introverts are late bloomers when it comes to brainstorming, not because they lack ideas but because they lack time and space to process their thoughts before expressing them out loud. Re-opening a topic after it is considered closed can be frustrating for the hosts, and what is more, it may reflect as if the person offering the ideas is a slow thinker. Then as well, in the absence of words, other colleagues might think that the quiet people play office politics and approach the decision makers after the sessions to change the direction.
My journey to finding true passion for leadership
As an introvert there are a few main areas that I am intentional with, in my pursuit to become a better leader. I have summarised them below in 10 key takeaways:
#1 — Be transparent about your thinking process
If you need more time to think, be clear about it. Mention that you have heard some good opinions, but in order to digest what was discussed and formulate your own, you would like some more time. And that is perfectly acceptable!
#2 — Let your performance speak louder than your words
Be known as someone who is competent, credible and consistently delivers, use your qualities to your advantage — no need to self-promote, let your work speak for itself! It is as simple as that!
#3 — Make your voice heard in meetings
Let go of perfection! — if you are anything like me, you want all of your sentences to come out fully formed and everything you say to be of high value. This will not happen in a meeting! But it will probably go better than you think.
Stay engaged throughout the meeting even when it is not your area of expertise. Ask questions that spark further discussions, for instance “what consequences will this decision have on X?” or “how is this helping our bottom line?”. If you do know the subject, don’t stop and think as your thoughts will derail you. Have you come across the 5 Second Rule from Mel Robbins? I cannot recommend this book high enough! Here is a one-line definition of the rule:
“If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea”
#4 — Maximise your influence in writing
Ideas flow better when you write as you have time to think and mull things over. Deep reflection, ruminating upon possibilities and ultimately leveraging these thoughts into a concise document is a skill you should leverage.
#5 — Prepare, Plan, Practise
Do your due diligence and research the meeting’s topics beforehand: create an agenda or prepare talking points on how you can address the questions in hand — the less you need to improvise, the easier the conversation will go. This also applies to any types of situation: whether that means running through a presentation or preparing for possible questions from your boss or employees.
#6 — Be ready to manage uncertainty
Although preparation is key to success, realistically you can’t prepare for everything, so it is critical you learn how to make quick and effective decisions! When you are trying to do something new, you won’t have 100% of the information you need; so accept that you will be wrong sometimes and try to make as many decisions as possible, followed by execution. A fear of failure means that something or someone will make that decision for you.
#7 — Pair up with an extrovert
If you only surround yourself with people who are like you, you lose an opportunity for growth and greater creativity. To access that opportunity, you need to understand an extrovert’s strengths and limitations, so you make a great duo who bring out the best in each other. Your shared goals and values is a starting point of connection to build from.
#8 — Make one on one or small group meetings part of your leadership method
One of your greatest spheres of influence is in small groups. You need to recognise that influence is a two-way street. The more you believe in the people around you and incorporate their ideas into your vision, the more they will believe in your ideas and incorporate them into their work habits, which creates an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.
#9 — Do schedule solitary tasks
Go in the office early in the morning or leave late in the evening or work from home, if need be. Create the cognitive space you need to recharge your batteries and focus on your projects.
#10 — Get out of your comfort zone!
While you don’t need to act like an extrovert to be a strong leader, you do need to step out of your comfort zone. My mentor once asked me to attend a conference, approach 10 people I don’t know and introduce myself. This was truly the most dreadful thing I had to do last year! Since I prefer to listen than talk, I was ready to ask a lot of questions to keep the conversation going. I am now a bit more confident when attending social events, and has also helped me to speak up in meetings. As you become more comfortable with your own ‘skin’ you will feel — and be perceived — more authentic.
Remember: being quiet isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength! Don’t force yourself to exude a persona that is not aligned with who you are, but use the natural talents that come with introversion to your advantage and say goodbye to the glass ceiling!
I hope you gained some transformative insights on how to amplify your strengths as a quiet leader and you feel more empowered to create success on your own terms!
Thanks for reading!