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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  • Very true that introverts have a hard time thriving in the church. I am one of those that enters the worship hall after it has started so that I don’t have to do small talk, and I hate the greeting time when we have to shake hands and smile at people we don’t know.

  • Thank you so much for this post. You have finally helped me understand why I so absolutely failed in my last leadership position. If I had been able to explain myself better and understand more about why people perceived me the way they did, the experience would have been a lot different.

  • Just wanted to say that this is a great piece of writing, much needed, and very helpful. Simply letting others know about your personality traits goes a long way in improving relationships, and building trust. I really appreciate this article, Thom. Thanks for tweeting it.

  • Stan Buckley says on

    To engage in conversation, simply ask the other person about himself – where he is from, what he does for a living, how many children, where he attends church, etc. Just keep asking questions about him. Most people will gladly talk about themselves. Unless, of course, they are introverts!

  • Thanks for the hints. It is good to know that I am not alone!
    I am beginning to understand and accept that I would rather stand in front of a million people and speak to them than stand in a church foyer and have to make small talk. I always tell people that my version of hell is a really hot church foyer! The problem I encounter is that when I speak in church or at school, people approach me afterwards like we know each other when really, they know me way more than I know them because I just shared some life experiances with them and they just sat there and listened.

  • Pastor Dave says on

    For my fellow introverts check out the book: “Evangelism for the Rest of Us: Sharing Christ within Your Personality Style” by Mike Bechtle [Kindle Edition]

  • Great article. When I was at a large congregation we gave the Myers Briggs and a Gifts Check list to ever new member and every person in our communication and family classes. Over 3,000 people knew their interpersonal preferences, including Introversion. We openly shared the preferences with every small groups, every committee and staff member so all our preferences were seen as a good diversity of people not a way to be rude or callous.
    I am amazed that so few churches teach their people how to understand personality types and preferences and their relationship to team development, communication conflict, marriage and family life, energy consumption, etc.

  • I think introverts make the best leaders, then again I’m biased. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mark Ziebarth says on

    Great essay! Thanks for letting others know about us introverts.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Thanks for the great interaction on this topic. Looks like I have a lot of company in the world of introversion. I encourage you to read these comments. Many are very insightful. Feel free to continue the conversation. I would say more, but I’m drained.

  • Hal Hunter says on

    I have observed over time that some of the most powerful and effective preachers I have known closely enough to see them both in and out of the pulpit are introverts. For years I saw that as a paradox, until I realized that these men had the ability and mind-set to be let Jesus and His message be the primary focus, with the messenger content to be just that – the messenger.
    And you are absolutely right – the difficult things for these men are the meetings and schmoozing that goes along with being a leader

  • I don’t know how to categorize myself, in some ways I am an introvert, I want to be there, but if no one talks to me, that’s just fine. On the other hand, once I get used to people I can talk to them and go up to them no problem.

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