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Unleashing the Introverted Leader

About ten years ago I was participating in a leadership program with area principals and other organizational leaders. As part of the training, we were instructed to undergo a 360 degree assessment. There were many revelations for me from that process, including important feedback about how others viewed my leadership capacity. But one insight that has remained with me the most had to do with our group as a whole.

The consultant who processed the data told us something that surprised me quite a bit at the time. Our group was comprised of communal leaders, people who oversaw many others and interacted routinely with tens if not hundreds of people each day. When he reached the area of extroversion and introversion (terms used by C. G. Jung to explain different attitudes people use to direct their energy), I was not expecting to hear that our group was collectively skewed towards introversion.

My surprise emanated from a simple misconception. I had associated introversion with shyness and perhaps even quietness. I figured that a person who is in constant communication could not possibly be an introvert. But I was wrong.

The reality is that introversion has little to do with our levels of social comfort or verbosity. Rather, it reflects on our energy source. Extroverts are people who gain their energy from others. They walk into a room and feel energized, feeding off of the collective energy as they navigate through the crowd. They seek other’s company and feel somehow incomplete if they are left in isolation for too long.

Introverts, in contrast, gain their energy from quiet, private time. They love to think and reflect privately, with the door closed, and enter into public settings out of necessity rather than preference. While many introverts can be described as quiet, introverts are more than capable of speaking and engaging as circumstances dictate. It’s more about their preferences and inclinations rather than their disposition or capacity.

“Spotting the introvert can be harder than finding Waldo,” Sophia Dembling, author of "The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World," told The Huffington Post. "A lot of introverts can pass as extroverts.” I am one of them. In fact, many people that I spoke with about my introversion expressed great surprise that someone who appears so comfortable interacting and speaking to crowds can be introverted.

Much focus has been given to leadership personality types and the predictions that can be made based off of a person’s Myers-Briggs MBTI score (or other assessment outcome). We assume that certain personalities are best suited for particular posts and those with other personality profiles need not apply. One post suggests that introverts would do well sticking to such fields as astronomy, film editor, and financial clerk, jobs that require little social interaction.

But as my leadership group experience taught me, there is more to a person’s candidacy than his personality composition. He also has to think about his passions and values, the kinds of things that drive people as much, if not more, than their energy profiles. If we love to teach, if we can offer guidance and direction, or if we seek the financial or other benefits of leadership, then we need to pursue and embrace “extroverted” positions even if we end each day drained as a result.

An introvert can make it, I believe, in such positions if he remains aware of who he is and how he may be perceived. Remember that many of your coworkers prefer extroverts or extroverted qualities of open communication and accessibility. This is particularly true when that is what they have come to expect from those that they report to (such as if your predecessor was an extrovert). Make sure that people understand that your preference for quiet and delayed, thoughtful responses does not reflect in any way on them and does not communicate dislike or distance. It’s simply how you recharge and process information best.  

This post first appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.

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