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  • Writer's pictureKate Gigax

The Power of Authentic Introverted Leadership

We can all relate to moments in organizational life where the question, “Do I belong here?” creeps into our minds. For some, it becomes a daily question when their natural preferences don’t align with the demands of the job or the culture of the organization. 

I often see leaders struggle with being told that they should “connect with people more” or “manage by walking around.” As an example, a senior vice president I worked with received feedback that he needed to work on his “leadership presence.” He pleaded with me not to make him attend a course where he would have to stand up and make a presentation in front of colleagues. The reason? He was afraid he’d embarrass himself.  

Recognizing that he had been avoiding similar advice for years, he told me, “At the risk of sounding like a child, I. Don’t. Want. To. I’m never going to be the mayor I’m being asked to be. Maybe it’s time for me to move on.” When shaking hands and kissing babies doesn’t feel comfortable, leaders may question whether they’re compatible with the leadership role they’re being asked to fill. 

They’re not alone — and we’re becoming more aware of it. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has been at the forefront of this movement, and it’s my top recommendation for introverted clients. Cain shines a light on those who prefer listening over talking; thinking before reacting; reenergizing in solitude; and connecting at depth with a few, as opposed to, on a surface level with many.  The Quiet Revolution Manifesto suggests that “solitude is a catalyst for innovation” and that “the next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.”

People who identify with being on the quiet side tend to have a similar reaction to Cain’s book. The reaction is a cross between “it’s not just me” and “I’m ready to true up to my introversion.” 

Although there’s greater awareness of their special qualities, introverts still confront our culture’s expectations of leadership. The notion many of us have of leaders is that of someone with a big, extroverted, charismatic personality. “Strong leaders” know how to work a room; are gregarious with strangers and dynamic on the microphone; think on their feet; maintain a large network and engage with people tirelessly. 

For introverts, that lifestyle sounds utterly exhausting. Enter the potential leadership strengths of an introvert:

  • Building a brand for yourself around your thoughtful contributions (imagine the room quieting down so people can hear you speak because they know it’s going to be worth hearing your point).

  • Developing connections with your team by listening and responding thoughtfully… one person at a time.

  • Walking the talk of real balance between work and life by allowing yourself (and, thus, those you lead) permission to unplug and restore when the day is over with the recognition that you have a significant impact on those you lead.

Authenticity is at the heart of leadership. When leaders recognize that it is not only possible, but powerful, to be an introvert and a leader, their signature leadership style comes alive. They can finally drop the mask they’ve been wearing while attempting to be the leader they think they “should” be, and they show up as themselves. 

What an introverted leader (or the person giving the introverted leader the feedback to “work the floor”) may not recognize is that the Monday morning rounds may not be working anyway. If it feels obligatory to you, it does to the team, too. It actually doesn’t create the connection you were hoping for, because it feels forced instead of real. You don’t enjoy it — and it’s not having the desired effect.

So how can you “true up” to your introversion? Here are eight ways you can ease into the power of quiet leadership:

  1. Determine your inner circle. Who are the six to eight key people you need to have relationships with? Introverts tend to show the best version of themselves to a close few. Be strategic about your inner circle—even if the individuals are not who you would naturally gravitate toward—and foster those relationships first.

  2. Connect individually. Most introverts tend to let others do the talking in a group setting. Introverts are not necessarily shy, though many will cop to not relishing attention or letting others who “need to talk” have their audience. As such, when seeking connection as an introvert or with an introvert, it’s often a more fruitful venture to take a walk or have coffee as a duo.

  3. Show and tell. Introverts are often mistaken for being aloof because they tend to avoid sharing freely. Some introverts prefer to be asked before sharing, and others require a bit more prying. One manager indicated, “I think my team knows I have kids, but I don’t want to bore them with my stories.” Sharing creates connection. Denying people your story is the equivalent of closing the door to a relationship.

  4. Reserve your right to respond later. How many times does the “I should have said…” reel play in your mind after a conversation? As an introvert, you are unlikely to do your best thinking in a meeting or conversation. In most cases, it’s perfectly fine to send an email after the event when you’ve had time to gather your thoughts. You might even let people know you intend to do as much by saying something like, “This is interesting. Let me think about it and I’ll follow up via email.”

  5. Fill your bag of tricks. You know the situations that make you uncomfortable (e.g., networking cocktail hour). Come prepared with a few stories, good questions (not about traffic and weather!) or try making a game of the experience by setting goals to talk to three new people or see if you can last for an hour before giving yourself permission to leave. Consider rewarding yourself and celebrating your successes when you achieve an objective. This form of positive reinforcement will help you to sustain a behavior change you seek to make. 

  6. Channel your extroverted alter ego when necessary. Sometimes it’s necessary to “act as if…” as long as you’re not living your life that way. Determine what your extroverted alter ego is like for times when you need to attend a work event, for example. Have a real person in mind and imagine how he or she would handle the situation you are about to enter. 

  7. Protect your restoration period. Especially after you’ve called on your alter ego, know when you need to recharge — and don’t be shy about saying “no” without an excuse. It’s OK to say no, even if you don’t have other plans. “I’d love to join you for dinner, but it’s been a busy day and I need some ‘me’ time tonight.”

  8. Own it. You are who you are. You have strong skills. You have a right to be here. You have things to contribute. Be authentic about and proud of your style. Simply because your style may be different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, your approach may offer the right solution to a particular problem or sticky situation. Further, people will resonate with and respect you more when you are your authentic self.

According to studies, an estimated 50 percent of the U.S. population identifies as introverted, so you aren’t alone. This is a significant portion of your coworkers, managers and direct reports. By utilizing these tips to harness your own success and happiness, you’ll also be creating a more positive and welcoming environment for other introverts around you to thrive. Cain included a quote from Gandhi’s in the Quiet Revolution Manifesto, suggesting “in a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

Feeling stuck as an introvert at work? Ready to shake the world?  We should talk.

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