What skills does an introverted leader need to develop?
Statistically, about half of us tend towards introversion (I’m definitely one of them). That fact doesn’t exclude us from being effective leaders.
In fact, many of the traits associated with introversion are actually strengths for someone who wants to lead well. Often, we can lead very effectively from within our comfort zone.
But there are also times when leading effectively requires us to do things we are not comfortable with. To help with that, here are six ways to help you step outside that comfort zone as an introverted leader.
Things to Recognize About Introversion
I’m sure you are generally familiar with the recognized traits of introversion. For a quick refresher, you can check out Nine Signs You’re Really an Introvert by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Beyond that, I think it’s helpful to level the bubble on how we think about introversion. Three thoughts for you:
1. It’s an ability, not a disability. In fact, under many conditions, introversion can be a distinct advantage. The list of leaders who were introverted is long and distinguished.
From Google to government, and Science to Sports, the world is full of famous names who were introverts at heart. Here’s a list of 23 introverted leaders you’ve probably heard of. Leading the list are Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, and Bill Gates.
2. It’s not an either-or proposition. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who first popularized the terms, said “There’s no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.”
Like with any standard distribution curve, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We may tend towards introversion, for example, but that doesn’t mean we lack the ability to speak up or work effectively with groups when we need to.
3. You can be what you want (for a time). In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain talks about Free-Trait Theory. The general idea is that we are born and acculturated with certain characteristics, like introversion – it’s who we are; it’s our comfort zone.
But we are not prisoners there. When conditions call for it, we are more than capable of adopting other characteristics for a time to get the job done.
So begin by thinking of introversion as a strength that still allows you to tap into other, more extroverted behaviors from time to time to help you lead effectively.
As an introverted leader, when you can lead from within your comfort zone, by all means, do. But for the times when you have to step outside, these tips may help.
Expanding the Comfort Zone
1. Prepare to speak spontaneously. Introverts tend to be naturally quiet. That can make us good listeners and allow other people’s voices into the conversation. But people need a word from you from time to time; after all, they can’t hear all that internal dialogue going on in our heads.
• Before meetings, write down key points you want to make so you’ll remember them when the time comes.
• Organize your thoughts before speaking with the boss; think about what she would want to know and how you can convey that information clearly.
• Many introverts have a hard time tooting their own horn, yet people need to know of your successes. You can achieve this by talking about your teammates and how they contributed to the win.
2. Avoid avoidance. One of the responsibilities of a leader is to ensure the team is working together, adheres to cultural standards, and stays focused on professional goals. When someone strays from the path, it’s up to the leader to do something. Two things to keep in mind that can help with this.
- Remember that by ignoring the negative behavior, you are effectively condoning it, and have just established a new, lower standard. You can’t afford to turn a blind eye.
- As the leader, others expect you do to do something, even the transgressors. Consider it a test, and to pass the test and keep the team on track, you have to deal with the problem directly.
Think through the circumstances, get the facts, then act. Play to your strengths by speaking privately with the person, give them an opportunity to say their piece, but look them in the eye and give them the candid feedback they need to hear.
3. Get comfortable in company. Teamwork is group event. One way an introverted leader can succeed in this environment can be to guide the interaction with questions (something we can be very good at).
• During discussions, don’t lead with what you think, ask others for their thoughts. This approach allows you to take advantage of other people’s expertise and perspective, yet positions you as the leader.
• In groups, pay attention to who is not speaking, and draw them out with more questions, “Samatha, what do you think about this topic?” If they are introverted like you, they may have plenty to say, and just need an opportunity to get a word in.
• If you are headed into a social situation, come up with three interesting anecdotes that others would be interested in hearing about. If you are worried about forgetting them in the moment, jot them down on a 3×5 card and stick it in your pocket.
• When social conversation stalls, use the acronym FORD to get it going again. Ask others about their Family, their Occupation, what they like to do for Recreation, and what they Dream of doing. People generally like talking about themselves, so asking about these areas can take the pressure off.
4. Be decisively clear. Our tendency to think through problems deliberately is a strength. But at some point, deliberation has to lead to decision.
• Think about when that decision needs to happen, and who should be involved in making it. Use the time you have to gather the facts, then make the best decision you can.
• Once you have decided, make sure everyone knows what it is happening. The bigger the decision, the more important that you communicate it clearly over multiple channels. Mention it in the meeting, share the email, and double-check during conversations with teammates that they got the word. Better to over-communicate than risk leaving someone out of the loop.
5. Be ready to (re)act. Introverts generally like things to go according to plan with everyone doing their part. We like to respond to challenges by first thinking, then acting.
But sometimes responding with deliberation is not what the situation calls for. Sometimes you have to get comfortable reacting.
• When someone crosses an ethical line or violates a cornerstone value, don’t pause to consider, speak up immediately and confidently,
“We don’t do that here”
“That’s not how we are going to treat each other.”
• In dealing with crisis, your team will be looking for clear and immediate guidance from you. Play to your strength by remaining calm, and act quickly by gathering the team and the facts. That will allow you to respond more intelligently with a good decision.
• When you know risk is involved, it can help if you wargame what might go wrong ahead of time, and think about how you might respond. Doing this as a form of rehearsal with your teammates is an even more effective way to build some agility into your team.
6. Dare to delegate. Something else that can be harder for an introverted leader is delegation. We may know exactly what we want, but telling others what to do can feel uncomfortable.
• First, think of delegation as part of your job description – it’s what you are expected to do. Like a quarterback in a game of football, most of the time you want to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible, or you’ll get creamed.
• Think carefully about how to describe the task and what the outcome should look like. Writing it out can help you clarify your ideas.
• Set a follow-up schedule and stick with it; meet one-on-one or in small groups.
• Get comfortable with the idea that they may do something differently than you would; as long as the outcome is right, prepare yourself to be OK with it.
Skills for the Introverted Leader – The Takeaway
As introverted leaders, we may be best suited to lead stable teams of people who are already self-motivated and capable. Our ability to listen, think, and plan become strengths that help guide the team without getting in its way.
But unexpected challenges and fluid situations require a more assertive leader approach. Play to your strengths when you can, but remember, sometimes you will have to step outside your comfort zone to do what’s best for your team.