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3 Things I Wish I’d Learned Sooner as An Introverted Leader

Updated: Jan 23, 2020

It often surprises people that I’m an introvert. First, because I enjoy using videos to share ideas from my coaching practice. Second, because the majority of my career has been spent in speaking and training roles, many times in front of hundreds of people. I'm actually very comfortable with public speaking, so many people assume that I'm an extrovert. However, people who know me well know that I am actually quite introverted. I love nothing more than spending my free time enjoying canceled plans, reading, writing and spending time at home with my family.

Introverts and Extroverts

Let’s dispel some myths about what it means to be an introvert and an extrovert, because I think it led me to believe I needed to be someone other than who I was to be a great leader. An introvert is not necessarily someone who's shy or anti-social. Introversion means you gain energy from solitary activities. Introverts often say they express their ideas better in writing and enjoy creative activities – alone. After a day filled with interaction or many sensory activities, introverts rebuild their energy stores through time alone or with a friend or partner. Extroverts, on the other hand, fill their energy bucket by interacting with people, by being in the world, socializing, going to parties, networking. They generally enjoy making small talk in large groups. Now, if you're an introvert, my sense is that when I explained that to you, your energy level may have dropped.

I had an a-ha moment in 2013 while reading Quiet by Susan Cain. She explained how our world is naturally built for extroverts. If your school-years experience was like mine, you were told to be more outgoing. Sitting home alone wasn’t cool. Even our workplaces are naturally built for extroversion. We sit in several daily meetings that include verbal exchanges of ideas. We now have open office environments with the goal to promote interaction. Some societal norms would have you believe that if you're successful, you're joining several networking groups and you have a packed social calendar.

But for introverts like myself, that actually takes drains my power. The constant being around others takes away the precious time that I need to reflect, generate ideas, strategize, and get curious and creative. Time alone provides introverts sacred ground to step into their power and show up as their best selves around others. Because this isn’t always the promoted way to show up with influence at work, I believed three myths that kept me from leading as my most confident and creative self.

Myth One: I need to be an extrovert to be successful. Truth: I need to be my most authentic self to be successful. It wasn't until I fully accepted my preference of introversion did I start to discover and find a meaningful career path. I stopped showing up in meetings as my awkward, overly direct self which was the result of speaking because I thought I had to speak. Instead of just blurting out thoughts, I held them a bit longer with curiosity and intention so they could be a more helpful idea. I came back to the table with creativity, not just raw thoughts, and I was actually more influential because I was working in a way that was harnessing my strengths. Talking doesn't always get things done, but it often gets things rolling. As an introvert, I leaned instead on action to get things done. Introverts have a wealth of genius at their disposal to move ideas – one-to-one relationships, deep connections, and strategic planning. Quietly making waves can happen from generating unique ideas and encouraging constant testing and learning.

Myth Two: To be seen as credible in meetings, I need to do a lot of talking. Truth: Credibility is built through thoughtful contributions, inside and outside of meetings. Ask yourself this question, if talking got things done, then talkers would be great leaders. I had to learn that it was okay if I didn't have an immediate answer to a challenging question or a topic in the meeting. I learned to step into my power as an introverted leader by saying, “That’s a great question, I’d love to give that some thought and come back to you tomorrow with some ideas.” I knew that activated my power of reflection, curiosity, writing, and it would give me time and space to think about coming back with a creative answer. Without using this approach, I’d often blurt out the thought on the top of my head, only to have ten better ideas come to me on my commute home. If you're an introvert, you probably know what I'm talking about. Plus, It also allowed me to better express my ideas in writing.

Myth Three: To be an influential leader, I need to have a certain gregariousness and charm. Truth: To create influence, I need to advocate for my unique ideas (in my own authentic way).

In our initial goal-setting conversation, many of my coaching clients will tell me they need to improve their charisma so they can be more like their company CEO or another well-respected extroverted leader. However, this comparison leaves them feeling like they’re not enough. Unqualified to lead. Instead of tapping into their unique genius, they spend their time and energy trying to show up as someone besides themselves.

Introverts are over 50% of the population, so a simple Google search can give you a long list of introverted leaders who uniquely advocated for their ideas. Rosa parks refused to give up her seat. Her actions started a movement. Warren Buffet advocates his genius via his successful investment strategy and good decision-making. Eleanor Roosevelt was described as a shy, yet she led 150 speaking engagements in the 1950s about human rights. Introverts have subtly moved through world by changing the way we think, writing brilliant novels, or inventing game-changing technologies. You can see them partner with extroverts to help them further push their ideas into the world.

How To Get The Best Ideas From Introverted Colleagues

The most helpful strategy I’ve used to get the best ideas and conversation out of my introverted colleagues (I use this for myself, too) is give them time to think. When I worked for introverted leaders, I would often send my meeting agendas a day in advance so they could have time to think about it, generate some ideas on their own, and they would often come to the meeting with more thoughts to contribute because they had that ample time to tap into their natural source of energy, power, and creativity to show up as their best self. I learned over time that this was a good practice for any meeting – many extroverts appreciated the communication (even if they didn’t read it) and the introverts loved the opportunity to plan their thoughts before the group discussion.

Introverts have just as much power as extroverts. They complement each other in a way the world needs to bring ideas to life. One is not better than the other, and if you are an extrovert, it's all about harnessing the natural way that you move through the world and the natural way that you harness creativity.

Ask yourself, when I am feeling most like myself, what am I doing? What projects or activities seem to give my unlimited energy? When do I feel most creative? The answers to these questions may give you some insights into where you draw your natural, creative energy. How could spending more time in the places that give you energy help you show up and move the world as your most authentic self?

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