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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  • Sharon says on

    I honestly was shocked when I read Dr. Rainer’s article…and now floored even more as I read these posts. Even though I recognize myself an introvert, reading these accounts that are almost word-for-word of things I have thought or said was still astounding to me. I am surrounded by extroverts in my family and profession so even though I know God made me in this way for His glory, I still have felt like these characteristics were weaknesses and that maybe I was just being lazy. Yes, I do enjoy speaking and presenting in large group settings, but hate small group and one-on-one conversations. Yes, I get physically exhausted from just being around people — which my husband still just cannot comprehend. 🙂 Yes, I do everything I can to be accompanied by someone who will talk when I’m in social groups and get very anxious when I need to go by myself into those situations. Small talk and “wasting time” in meetings drives me crazy! I have felt at times that I truly dislike people, and then feel guilty about that because we are instructed to love them. I have practiced most of these compensating tips that you gave, but it’s good to have assurance that they are effective. The strength I have to do what I do is only attributed to God and I give him credit. Thank you Dr. Rainer for your initial article and thank you to all of you who have posted comments.

  • Thom,
    Great post. I enjoy speaking in front of groups of any size. And yet, afterward I am completely drained. In fact, I’m drained from spending time in large groups of people – even if I’m not speaking. I’m sure that I have come off as disinterested and even abrasive – but in fact I just need time alone in order to recharge. I also struggle with forcing myself outside of my alone time – and yet the more time I spend outside of my comfort zone – the easier it is to not become a reclusive hermit. The entire concept of an introverted leader is a crazy paradox…thanks for sharing!
    Joe Zizz
    Executive Director
    Lakeview Christian Camp

  • Leonardo Perez says on

    I apologize, but i’m not english speaker, so, please be soft with me. 🙂
    Today is Sunday, I teach at Sunday School this morning, a very good crowd, many good questions, many good opinions and i felt very good; and preach at service a couple hours ago, i felt energized, passionate and happy to preach, then we have a celebration with youth, some cofee, cookies, and a good conversation, but i was completely quiet… some brother ask as joke: “were the pastor is?”.
    Well, this pastor is introverted too, and i’m so glad to read your article, it makes me smile and thanks Jesus by read it and all this thread makes me so happy.
    I think that were this introverted pastor is more usefull is listen at memebers of my church when i visit them, ask some info as the conversation go, and think and pray deep while my brother talk, talk and talk. Please, don’t missunderstand me, I really take care the whole conversation, it’s hard, but I think my brother really is worthy of my complete attention. And when i left their house, i felt tired but happy, so happy.
    So, sorry by my english, God bless you.
    By the way, I like to translate your article to spanish, so if you don’t have problem with that, I will so happy to do it. Or, maybe the spanish version exists, so, i want it.

  • Cedric Credle says on

    KC I read your letter and that was a long blow.That is placing a guilt trip on you and that is not right. I do not know of your belief in God,but Jesus loves you and God has a plan for your life. My friend there is hope and HE WANTS TO HELP YOU.

  • Cedric Credle says on

    Gene it is a blessing to meet you man,and I know how you feel. As an introvert I do not feel confident of myself,I do not know of how many failures of your past but my past failures at time hold me down. At times fear set in,but enough of the negative. As a Pastor a shepard responsibilty of a flock,they are many unquite people,and you need the Holy Spirit to come along to help.It is the unknown that bring weight. I am impressed with you brother that you came up at bat so to speak. But i would to talk with you,and please I know how it is,we do not know each other,and I did not know whom to trust.Those in leadership need that helping hand,just as the flock does,but who help the Pastor when needed? When we talk I want the Holy Spirit,in this in that issues never know before will come up and deliverance will come.
    Let me tell you this; I do not know what you belief about prophetic ministry for a long time, I was going to hell in trying to make it to the next day. This man read my mail and you think that I would be embarrass,in front of the congregation I was going thru,but I felt releived.
    but the one thing he told me I was trying to please the Father so much,when I was young I was told you were not good enough. I do not know how your relationship with parents were,but one of the Few times God called me HIS SON. we may feel like orphans but Gene my brother we have been accepted. Praise his Name. If you want to talk write me back my email address is above so if,you feel at peace I will give my phone number of vice versa.
    Shalom My Brother.

  • Cedric D. Credle says on

    Anthony I do know of what you are coming from. I am at times an introvert,but be able to speak at long meetings. I was in a church some years ago,in VA. and a group went to Norway for a mission trip. One of the young just touched the microphone and preached up an storm. Some of the people were shocked what they saw,and I ask them was wrong,the reply was the girl was very shy. That told me something. There is a book by Tim Lehaye who wrote about Natural Temperments and the power of the Holy Spirit. We tend to do things in our strenght and we are wore out. As being a Pastor and the things that a Pastor does,at time being inconvience comes with the ministy.It expresses the Mind of Christ of being approachable as he was. Remember he uses the weak so his strenght is manisfested.I do not know about your beliefs on the Holy Spirit,if you want talk or write there is my email above that we can communicate. You are not alone. I could not stand in front of a class in high school.Brother I want to help.

  • Hank, I agree with all of what you wrote, and speak on these things. Perhaps the one most overlooked aspect in your comments is that of the Holy Spirit. It is through the HS leading and urgings that we grow most and have precious memories to build our faith for future endeavors. When the HS brings us through a set of circumstances or incidents that otherwise we would not undertake as an introvert, our faith and trust in God grows by great lengths. When the next daunting task comes along, it is not so daunting or inconceivable. What a great God!

  • I am a church planter and I love speaking to groups big and small, but one on one small talk has been an issue all my life. Especially with people I meet for first time at our church. It has gotten easier, but it is easily the hardest thing I do in ministry. Thanks Thom for being transparent. It gives me hope knowing so many leaders deal with this too.

  • Great column about people that from a DISC perspective are High S/C styles. Steadiness and Compliant. Usually less orientated to change as well.
    Most of the Level 5 Leaders in Good to Great are this style because they bring consistency in leadership too.
    No certain style of leader is better than another but if you know yourself, you also know as Thom would that he is not a risk taker and would need to have some other styles around him that he trust that push him to consider change and push him also for speed. Most introverts deal with not moving as fast as the other styles.
    Most introverts don’t accept change well either.
    Real world example:
    For example of this, lets say in your Operations area of manufacturing you have disarray. You would want a High D (Type A) to come in and get it under control and after he/she has this done (1-2 years) then you would want to move them to another project if possible and insert a S/C to maintain it.
    I do believe most Christian introverts/extroverts don’t fully realize the Holy Spirit’s implications for their lives too. There are things that I do as an introvert that without the HS in my life that happen that are awesome and I am thankful for this leading. Belief is key.
    Now as to why Thom is leading Lifeway, that is a Ed Spranger Attitudes/Values answer…..

  • and I thought I was the only one who felt a need to flee from small talk. Thanks Dr Rainer for sharing.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    All of your comments are helping me understand the world of introversion even more. It is fascinating to hear of many introverted leaders in churches who have responsibilities that make them act like extroverts. That is not easy. I speak from painful experiences.

  • Thom, Thanks for the article. I wanted to start this off saying, “Hi my name is George and I’m an introvert…” But I realized this is not a 12 step program. I agreee with everything in your article and have looked at this as a leader as you have as well. I take encouragement in knowing some of the greatest leaders of organizations in recent history have introvert tendencies. Reading books and articles based on research such as Jim Collins works reveals the successful leaders of their research have more introverted characteristics than the comparison counterparts.

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