The Introverted Leader

May 12, 2011

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. 

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78 Comments

  • Is your first principle missing a “Not”?

    1. “NOT” 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.

    Without the “not” it sounds contradictory. Help me understand if I’m missing something. Great info by the way! Big fan!

  • Patricia says on

    Great article and it’s nice to know that I am not alone. As an introvert, I find that I’m a great “behind the scenes” person, have no problem working alone and perform well in support roles, but really have no desire to lead. People often perceive me as stuck up or anti-social because they do not realize that I’m really just a somewhat shy introvert. It’s true that I absolutely abhor social gatherings and the accompanying small talk. It wears me out whereas alone time energizes me! However, I’ve had co-workers criticize me out for “not talking enough” or “taking no interest in others.” It’s just not the way I’m wired and I really have to make a conscious effort to do otherwise (and I feel like I’m being fake and pretending to be someone I’m not). Personally I get a little tired of feeling like I need to apologize to extroverts who find fault with me for not being just like them.

  • Great article. I think I am a “mix” as I can get drained in a group setting, mainly because I tend to fade into the background when they are real extroverts around:-) But I can also get somewhat energized by being at some group events. I remember taking the Meyers Briggs survey many years back, and I did come out right in the middle of introversion and extroversion. So I guess I can relate to both sides, but more to the introversion side.

    I think it’s great that you have gone on to be a leader. Many introverts don’t attempt such things.

  • Articles like these are both comforting and informative! I’m also an introvert who leads and speaks at events but I am most comfortable at home with my love. I appreciate the tips and will keep them in mind especially having someone around to tell me when I’m acting weird! Thank you

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