An Introvert’s Guide to Leadership

An Introvert’s Guide to Leadership

BY John R. Platt Posted: 18 Sep 2015

There’s a shift going on right now.

A decade ago, introverts were still considered the oddities in the office. The quiet ones who liked to sit off by themselves and weren’t “team players.” The people who were maybe too aloof or arrogant. The employees who were misunderstood and left behind while their peers advanced up the corporate ladder.

“Quiet people have the loudest minds.”
— Stephen Hawking

That’s starting to change. “The last few years have seen the rise of the introverts,” says Jennifer Kahnweiler, one of the world’s leading experts on introverts. “People are starting to step more into their strengths, and there’s a commitment now to pay attention to introverts. We’re changing the culture.”

She should know. Her books—including Quiet Influence and The Introverted Leader—have been a major touchpoint in this cultural shift. The conversation she started in 2009 should now move to the next level with this summer’s publication of her latest book, The Genius of Opposites: How Introverts and Extroverts Achieve Extraordinary Results Together.

Kahnweiler’s focus on this previously ignored half of the population started several years ago, when she was working as a leadership development coach and consultant for several technology companies. “Technology people kept saying to me, ‘I’m really good at what I do, but I am running into problems trying to sell it or get people to understand me.’”

That’s when she started to help them. Today she considers herself a champion of introverts. “I have become so committed to introverts stepping into who they are, and then organizations taking full advantage of their skills. Otherwise these companies risk losing all of that talent.”

There’s obviously still a big bias against introverts. Many executives whom I have interviewed over the past few years have suggested that introverts work best in dark, lonely rooms and don’t have it in them to lead or influence others. You’ve probably heard statements like that around your own office. Heck, if you’re an introvert, you might have even said it to yourself.

Kahnweiler, however, disagrees. She’s proven through her books, seminars and speaking engagements that introverts have what it takes to succeed—not only for themselves, but also for their organizations. All it takes is an understanding that introversion comes with a set of core strengths that can help you at every step of your career.

The First Step: Don’t Pretend to Be an Extrovert

As a life-long introvert myself, I used to think that the best way to overcome my “flaws” was to try to match the outgoing behavior of the extroverts in my office.

Let me tell you, it didn’t work. Oh, sure, I could be friendly and maybe aggressive for a little while, but it exhausted me and left me stressed out. Sometimes I’d leave a meeting and practically run to the first quiet room that I could find. I felt like I was hiding behind a not-very-convincing mask.

“It’s very tiring when you’re trying to be somebody you’re not,” says Kahnweiler. This game of pretend has other deleterious side effects. It can also create resentment and weaken your sense of self-esteem. “Your confidence can start to erode when you’re not being authentic,” she says. These are all dangerous feelings, no matter who you are.

Kahnweiler says introverts shouldn’t try to adapt to an extroverted world. Instead, they should use their natural talents to make a difference. Not only will that improve their sense of self-worth, it will allow them to contribute and lead in ways that only they can accomplish.

The Second Step: Understand Your Quiet Strengths

Kahnweiler has identified a number of “quiet strengths” that introverts embody. They take advantage of quiet time, they’re prepared, they practice engaged listening and have focused conversations, they are great written communicators and they have a thoughtful use of social media.

Preparation, she says, is the introvert’s “ace in the hole.” As opposed to extroverts who frequently wing it, introverts take a lot of time to get ready for a project, speaking engagement or other activity. “If they’re prepared, their confidence goes up so much more,” she says.

Similarly, introverts benefit from having a deep understanding of issues. “It’s depth versus breadth,” she says. This allows them to take the time to get to know people, and to ask provocative questions that deepen that understanding. It also works with projects, where they don’t work on “a million things at once” and can focus on the most important tasks at hand.

Kahnweiler praises introverts’ calm demeanors, as well as their ability to express themselves in writing. This, she says, is not only a way to make their own positions clear, but also enables them to communicate them with others in a persuasive manner. As she says, a well-written, persuasive email can move an idea along much faster than simple conversation.

Perhaps introverts’ greatest asset is the strength they get from being alone, an opportunity that allows them to shut out outside influences and develop their best ideas. “You get your energy from inside yourself,” Kahnweiler says. An earlier technology leader, Nikola Tesla, put it a different way: “Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

The Third Step: Take Those Strengths to a New Level

Of course, all strengths, once identified, can be built upon. Just like going to the gym can improve your muscles, you can put your introverted strengths to the test and make them even stronger.

To accomplish this, Kahnweiler has developed a process she calls the 4 P’s to help you build those mental muscles:

  • Preparation – coming up with your game plan
  • Presence – being able to be fully in the moment
  • Push – taking deliberate risks and stretching beyond your comfort zone
  • Practice – continuing to improve

She cautions people not to get overwhelmed as they build their strengths. “Take one step at a time,” she says. “It is like a foreign language.” She suggests working with mentors or learning by watching people who are good role models.

Again, this isn’t about turning into an extrovert or trying to beat extroverts at their own game, but it is about improving your people skills, something that can be useful in a lot of situations—such as larger events, for example. “Introverts tell me, they never feel totally comfortable at these big gatherings where the extroverts just float around. They can talk to anybody or make a tree talk. But if the introverts are prepared, they know some questions to ask, they know maybe what their purpose is at those gatherings, it makes it a lot better. The more you do it, the more you strengthen that muscle.”

The Fourth Step: Establish How You Work Best with Others

Embracing your strengths as an introvert also means letting people know that you’re an introvert and what that means for your working style. Let’s say you’re at a conference and people want to go out to dinner at the end of a long day, but you want to go back to your room and rebuild your inner strength for the next day. “Tell them,” Kahnweiler says. That’s the best way to avoid being misunderstood and to ensure that you can prepare for the next day.

In regular work environments, take the time to explain to your boss or your co-workers that you need time to yourself, breaks to think, a place where your senses won’t be overloaded, or whatever other environment you need in which to do your best work. Maybe that means working by yourself or in very small groups, or being given time to brainstorm instead of being asked to come up with ideas on the fly.

The “rise of the introvert” over the past few years means you’re more likely to be understood once you make your needs clear. “The climate now is one where if you start talking about introverts, people kind of know what it’s about,” Kahnweiler says.

Another thing she strongly suggests is avoiding some sit-down meetings, which can make introverts feel like they are on the witness stand. Instead, try a walking meeting, something that’s very easy to do on a lot of today’s modern technology campuses. “Both the introverts and extroverts are really responding to that,” Kahnweiler says. Not only can introverts and extroverts use these walking meetings to talk while walking parallel with each other, it also burns calories.

That’s an especially important thing for introverts, who Kahnweiler says “love what they do so much they don’t even get up and stretch.” Building breaks into your schedule not only allows to you get away from your desk and flex your muscles, it also allows your brain a chance to flex and finish thoughts that might not be obvious if the problem you’re trying to solve remains directly in front of you.

All of these suggestions can help introverts do their jobs better, become more confident, work with their teams, and to lead effectively. By employing some simple strategies for maximizing your core strengths, you’ll find that you have better opportunities to present your ideas, to convince people of your value, and to make a greater impact.

Of course, change might not be immediate, especially on a cultural side. “People change faster than organizations do,” Kahnweiler says. “But we can get awareness about ourselves and start believing in ourselves. And when more people around us start doing that, it’s a positive thing.”

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John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to IEEE-USA InSightScientific AmericanTakePart and other publications.

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