Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Introverted Leader

By Thom Rainer

I am an introvert. I speak in public and group settings about 200 times a year. I am the president of an organization with 5,000 employees.

Admittedly, it’s a weird combination. I am required to be out front leading and speaking every week.

But I’m an introvert. I am happiest when I’m by myself or with a few close friends or family members.

How does an introverted leader lead? Can an introverted leader lead?

The Life of an Introverted Leader

I come by my introversion honestly. My dad was an introvert, yet he managed to lead a small bank as president and CEO and to be mayor of the small town in Alabama where I spent all my pre-college years.

Because everyone in the town knew and loved dad, he could get away with his idiosyncrasies of introversion. If he were being drained in a conversation of small talk, he would simply walk away without explanation to the group. I remember vividly one time when my parents were entertaining another couple at our home. I watched my dad carefully as I saw his energy draining rapidly. He abruptly stood up and announced to the couple and my mom that he was going to bed. He left the three of them somewhat stunned and embarrassed.

Dad could get away with such behavior. I can’t. Indeed, most introverted leaders can’t.

What Drains Introverts

Small talk drains introverts. We weird people often wonder why people ask us how we’re doing. We can’t stand to be captured by a stranger or casual acquaintance that wants to tell us how we can make the world a better place to live. We dread being placed at a dinner table where we are expected to carry the conversation. We do not like being the center of attention. To the contrary, a lone corner of a room with no one noticing us suits us just fine.

I have often been perceived to be unfriendly because of my introversion. It’s a fair accusation. I do not have a gregarious outwardly friendly personality. But I am deeply loyal to friends and family. Still I do need to work on my appearance of unfriendliness.

Compensating for Introversion

Through the years, I have tried to compensate for my strong tendencies toward introversion. Indeed any leader must compensate to lead effectively. Here are my own seven principles for leading as an introverted leader.

1. Compensating for introversion is not an option. Leaders can’t lead without dealing with people in a multitude of settings. If I am not willing to compensate, I should not be a leader.

2. I must practice LBWA, leadership by walking around. I can’t stay confined to the comforts and seclusion of my office. I must be seen by employees. I must be seen by constituents and customers. I must travel to places to develop relationships.

3. It often behooves me to explain to others that I am introvert so my quietness and reticent nature are not misinterpreted to be lack of interest or unfriendliness. On more than one occasion, that explanation has helped people immensely in understanding what I say or don’t say, or to understand better my body language.

4. When possible, I need to keep meetings short. The longer a meeting, the more I get drained. Many employees with whom I work have learned that lesson. I also notice that extroverts tend to organize long and tedious meetings. They enjoy them. I don’t. I really don’t.

5. As much as possible, I try to have an extrovert with me when I’m in public or group settings. That extrovert can carry the conversation. I can nod my head and smile.

6. I need to practice self-awareness constantly. In that regard, I need and have someone I trust to speak to me truthfully. If I appear to be acting like an uninterested jerk, that friend does not hesitate to tell me. It’s painful, but I need to know how others perceive me.

7. I must schedule downtime. If I don’t recharge my batteries often, I become a useless leader. But I can’t succumb to the temptation to perpetuate my downtime. I must return to all of the principles stated above.

The Introverted Leader Can Lead

It is possible for us introverts to lead. But it takes effort. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort.

Feel free to give me your take on this matter. I would love to hear from all of you, especially fellow introverts.

But then again, most of you introverts may not desire to join the conversation.

I understand completely.



Until next time...share the journey and enjoy the ride!

Pat