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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  • Evelyn Noweder says on

    Wow! So good to hear from someone who shares the feelings that I have. I sometimes feel called into a leadership roll, but am more content to be in the background. In leadership rolls I truly struggle to overcome my anxiety and discomfort in social situations. Such good information and ideas for pushing through. Thank you.

  • Thank you Dr. Ranier! As an elected official, I found that people would look at me strangely when I told them that I was an introvert…I’m going to make sure my wife reads this (she’s an extrovert :). Blessings,

  • All my life I have been introverted leader , but I totally agree and I feel I am the same way in my personality as in your article. But I still don’t know what God’s plan is for my life as an introverted leader. How do you find out ?

  • Thanks for this post. I suspect many if not most pastors fit into this category. I know many who are rather insecure, but have great ministries. Keep up the good work of encouraging leadership.

  • Dr. Rainer,
    I am an introvert’s introvert. Probably one reason I went into information technology. Now, as I’m getting more involved in ministry, I am naturally drawn to the academic side of teaching. While everyone else is sitting around the after-church meal talking about their families or favorite sports teams, I’ll be reading a book trying to glean information that I can use in a future class.
    I have a tough time managing/leading teams, because I was always one of those people to whom you could assign a task, and I’d go off and work on it, and bring back the results. Having to lead people who don’t have that same introvert task-oriented work style, but need someone staying after them and leading them through each step, drains me.

  • I’m an introvert who has learned to act like an extrovert when I need to, too, so this was a great post, with great guidelines! Thanks, Thom!

  • Excellent post, Thom. It hit the nail on the head for me!

  • Dr Rainer,
    Thanks for the post. You have spoken to me what I have been feeling for so long. The hardest struggle I have is making my family understands. It takes so much effort for me to engage in conversation. I find that I am always being misunderstood as being unfriendly or lacking in interest in conversations. I get so frustrated at times having to explain myself why I am quiet. It is good to know that I am not alone in this struggle.

  • Thom,
    It’s funny how God has given some of us the ability to “flip the switch” when we walk into a ministry setting, to turn on our inner extrovert… and yet as soon as we step off the stage we struggle to engage and make small talk. Great post, thanks so much.

  • Thank you for your post. I am an introvert with a capital IN and relate to all that you say. I recently participated in a leadership training program provided by my employer. The subtle message that floated throughout the training was that when it comes to leadership, it is okay to be an introvert but it is much better to be an extrovert. My struggle is with resenting the idea that I should be more extroverted, and less like the self I am best at being, in order to be a good leader.

  • Dr. Rainier, I appreciated your thoughts on leading as an introvert. I’m a rabid extrovert and need to be reminded, not only that I have introverts on my team, but also what I need to do to allow them to lead and be themselves.
    Also, I wrote a companion piece for your viewing pleasure titled, “The Extroverted Leader.”
    Thanks again and enjoy!

  • Thom,
    This is a great article! Thank you for sharing. I too am an introverted leader, and find myself drained at the end of the day, especially after a day full of meetings.
    One thing that I have always struggled with is starting conversation with people that I don’t know well, or feel like I have nothing in common. Do you have any tips or things that you use to be able to connect with people when there is a need for conversation instead of awkward silence?
    I like your idea of having an extrovert with you to keep things going! I have unwittingly doing this for years! Thanks for the surprise affirmation!

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