The Introverted Leader

I am an introvert. I speak in group settings hundreds of times a year.

Admittedly, it’s a weird combination. I am required to be out front leading and speaking to pastors and church leaders 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 clients and employees. I must travel to places to develop relationships.

3. It often behooves me to explain to others that I am introverted so my quietness and reticent nature are not misinterpreted to be a 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 people with whom I have worked 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.

Posted on May 12, 2011

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Anthony says on

    As a pastor, this is something I have struggled with through out my ministry. I hate the long meetings. I have a hard time with big crowds. I certainly feel completely drained after Sunday morning or after a Bible Study. It takes me the rest of the day to even feel like talking to anyone. I am best when it is just a couple of friends meeting for coffee.
    Because of these struggles I had always questioned my abilities and marveled at some of my peers that are extroverts. It is just a matter of us being aware of our weaknesses and using our strengths. Thanks Thom for the self observations so we may do some introspection.

  • I am an introverted leader and busy pastor. I sometimes come across as brash or uncaring, but that’s usually when I’m “peopled out.”
    I have to work hard to be a “people” person in my work.
    It has always puzzled me at how I can enjoy preaching to a congregation and have no stage fright, but when I finish, I get really uncomfortable with all the people swirling and coming at me and want to run to my office.

  • I especially loved the point about short meetings. I must ‘do’ meetings all day long as part of my job and I find the best ones for me are those where the group is small (two or three) and the agenda is very focused so we can end the meeting when it’s done and not feel like we have to fill the entire time allotted.

  • Brilliant post Thom. I love how you both emphasized the ways that you care for your introvert and also how you have learned to stretch as a leader and a person. I’ve seen that about 40% of leaders in the corporate world are introverts, and I think there are many gifts that we bring to leadership. I’ve addressed this issue from the perspective of life in the church, in a book called Introverts in the Church. As a pastor, I’ve found the church to be a particularly difficult place for introverts to thrive.

  • Nice article- appreciate the vulnerability of this. Quiet waters usually run deep, and I think that is one of the advantages of introversion. I find that structuring ministry around smaller meetings works well for me, but the trade off is I have to have more of them. As you said, it takes effort.

  • This all rings so true to me! I have discovered in my professional life that one of the biggest areas I need to focus on is how I am perceived by extroverts. Helping extroverts understand a bit about how I operate and finding more ways to “get out” and interact more have been my main areas of growth recently.
    Thanks for a great post!

  • Terrence says on

    Thank you, Thom! That is excellent! Introverts, such as myself, can often feel alone in this. You have blessed me tremendously! By the way, I, too love preaching and teaching, but despise small talk and making anouncements, etc. I also enjoy attending or leading conferences, but do Not enjoy breakout sessions. Does anyone else share these issues.

  • Haydee says on

    Wow, I loved this. Though I am not a leader, it reminds me so much of myself. Haha. I enjoy being alone, but I am actually the extroverted introvert type. And the reason why I try to be social is because I am a christian.
    I believe we, introverts are the best leaders.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • Cliff Vines says on

    Excellent article with very practical tips. I confess, I have elements of both introvert and socialite. I really enjoy being with people, but don’t want to have to talk all the time, and it does drain me to have be engaged in small talk for long periods of time. I need definite time to recharge by myself, probably more than many others, but I also hate being by myself all the time.

  • jim hess says on

    Thanks Thom! Me too.

  • Michael says on

    Dr. Rainer, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I feel as if you were describing me. I appreciate these principles and intend to work on them immediately. I am glad to see the leader of a great organization who can lead without being an extrovert. Thank you again for sharing this.

  • I completely agree with your comments, Thom. I, too, am an introverted leader. I am more comfortable blending into the background but have had to ‘push’ myself forward on many occasions. Others may debate at length; I find myself weighing my words carefully before I speak because I don’t want to come off unintelligently. It’s not that I don’t have the intelligence as I have consistently scored in the upper one percentile; it is just that my introversion can often make me sound completely unintelligent. I can preach and teach and challenge people, but one on one I struggle. I can carry on a conversation if I have to, I have learned to do that, but it is a struggle. And, yes, long meetings dealing with non-essentials or small talk drain me very quickly. But I have tried over the years to practice just what you suggest; failure to do so has led to misunderstanding and even eventually losing a church who thought I was not the leader they had wanted after I served there for eight effective years.

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