Let me just think about that.
We love to divide ourselves into groups. Especially when it gives us some sense of belonging, identity, or insight into our inner workings. The early birds and night owls, the doers and the thinkers, the hunters and the gatherers. Each with their own perceived pros and cons. Yet, despite our love of group behaviour and tribe dynamics, we still live in a world where often, one type fits all.
My career started and developed in an age that seemed to idolised extroverts. Be bigger, bolder, braver, the books would tell me. Speak up, be heard, be seen, a manager would suggest. For a long time, I thought that this was the way I had to behave to be a manager or a leader. I felt like without these skills I would struggle to progress my career. It also meant I spent a lot of my time acting outside of my comfort zone. But more importantly outside my skill set, and this didn’t do me any favours. Far from it. My biggest mistakes and missteps were all times I tried to be something I wasn’t.
I’m an introvert.
For many years I spent a lot of energy fitting my introverted round peg in the idealised extroverted square hole. Whilst seemingly successful on the outside I was always utterly exhausted and more often than not felt like I wasn’t being myself. When you’re in a world that seemed to idolise behaviours commonly associated with extroverts, you learn them. Over the years, practice makes perfect. Though perfect isn’t needed and perfectionism is a curse. But that’s another article.
Well over a decade ago I went for a director role at a very large national charity. I got down to the last two candidates and was invited back for a second interview. The deciding question was: are you more comfortable speaking to a large group of people or working the same room? I chose (and still would) the public speaking option. I didn’t get the job because of my answer. At the time I was gutted, but the MD took me out for coffee to explain. The CEO was like me, and they needed someone who wasn’t. The other candidate, who was in their element working a massive room got the job, because that was the job the CEO needed doing. For quite a while this reinforced a notion that my introverted tendencies were forever going to hold me back.
Relief came through reading a 2012 book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I’ve always loved reading. It’s my go to solution to any problem. Read about it. Read around it. After reading Quiet I felt seen and heard, and slightly vindicated. Cain’s definition was that introverts prefer a quiet, more minimally stimulating environment. They tend to enjoy quiet concentration, listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and have a more circumspect and cautious approach to risk. Introverts are less reckless and focus on what really matters—relationships and meaningful work.
Sure, before that book I’d done the usual work-related personality tests. The surveys at team-building days or as part of a management development programme. I’d also been very aware that labels have their pros and cons. Self-awareness can be life changing; a label can bring a sense of identity and understanding. However conversely labels can also be constricting and often, wrongly applied. Putting people in boxes is always negative.
But once I really understood introverts and extroverts and the different skills both possess, I accepted that being an introvert wasn’t the inferior version of extrovert. It wasn’t black and white, yes or no, right or wrong. When I realised, they are tendencies that exist on a spectrum and that ambiverts exist. That rather than an absence of something, introverts can have a unique set of traits and characteristics. I finally felt like I could stop pretending to be something I wasn’t and embrace being my real self. I found freedom, success, and real confidence in embracing my introvert tendencies. Being an introvert became a superpower.
So, what are these superpowers? How can introverts use the things they may find naturally easier to be effective leaders? Now this comes with a caveat (and it’s back to the boxes). Not all introverts have all these tendencies, and not all these tendencies apply only to introverts. These are just some of the things I found easy to embrace.
- My first change was to stop forcing myself to talk in meetings. I naturally only speak when I have something to say. Trying to speak up in a room full of people was hell. Now I embrace the quiet of my own head, use meetings as listening opportunities and feel confident enough to only speak when I really need to. In most meetings there are a mix of different types of people. Those who feel confident speaking up and making their point heard, and those who prefer listening and taking everything in. Everyone has an important part to play, and I found mine in listening.
- Small groups. Despite liking my own space, I really enjoy spending time with my friends, my family, my colleagues, my work contacts, and my collaborators. But I’m most comfortable in a small group, with people I know. I also love getting to know new people, but ideally when it’s one-on-one. So, I gave myself permission to ask people for small group meetings. I love going for a coffee with people (even though it’s always tea for me) to really get to know them, often without any purpose or preconceived goal. Just a chat and a chance to form a real connection with someone.
- Public speaking. Oddly perhaps, but consistent with many of my other introverted leader friends, public speaking isn’t something that is harder for me than anyone else. Standing on stage in front of a thousand people is terrifying, no matter how many times you do it. The fear is usually there regardless of your introvert or extrovert tendencies. Knowing that the fear is mostly universal, rather than a deficiency of mine, I learned to use the fear as a driver to be properly prepared, speak from the heart, be braver for those without a platform and share a story people want to hear.
- Embracing events. Whilst people who class themselves as extroverts often feel invigorated and energised by a large room full of people, introverts can find it tiring, difficult and draining. Gone are the days when I used to hide in the toilets at an event to recharge. I know I need my own time before and after big events, so now I plan to give myself that space. Just knowing I have some alone time when the event is finished is enough for me to enjoy events, revel in meeting new people and embrace the experience.
- Thinking time. I like to think on things. I like time to think through an idea, problem, or solution. I like listening to other people’s thoughts on the topic, finding consensus and building up a picture, and support, for something. I no longer worry that I need to have all the answers, instantly, or even at all. One of my most common responses is ‘let me just think about that’. I usually do my best thinking while walking alone – most commonly on the way to or from work. I make time for this. Embracing my introverted tendencies also gave me permission to say ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ without fear of looking like I’m not up to the job.
- Focus. I can focus for very long periods of time on difficult and complex things. I actually enjoy it. I love solving problems and reading deeply into something. I’m not easily distracted. For me, data days are respite days. I’ve found a way to make this work for my organisations, by gravitating to projects and positions that needed these skills. I worked with peers, team or managers that I can support in this way. I found roles that suited my serious focus. I incorporated my love of learning and ideas into my career.
In the interests of this not being one-sided, extroverts have tons of traits to be admired too. They are highly sociable, quick to make friends, seem naturally and outwardly confident, are risk takers and fast acting decision makers. They can easily be the life and soul of a party.
Knowledge is power. And superpowers come from knowing yourself and allowing yourself, to be yourself.
And back to that job. It was totally right for the CEO to go with the candidate who brought the skills they needed. It’s a lesson for everyone regardless of your ‘type’; surround yourself with great people, have teams with different skills to you, and don’t be intimidated by other people’s talents – just learn from them. That both extroverts and introverts have a crucial role in any team. My one hope then, is that we encourage and support more introverts into leadership positions. Their skills are needed at every level of an organisation.
Written by Donna Holland – Rockinghorse Children’s Charity