The Introverted Leader

As the Executive Director of a non-profit, I spend most of my days with my “game-face” on. I manage, and attempt to motivate, our team, I attempt to impress potential donors, I give speeches. I smile, I laugh, I engage. And then, at the end of the day, I’m utterly exhausted, and there’s nothing that makes me happier than a glass of wine and the Daily Show.

I am a introverted leader (which sounds like the kind of announcement one makes at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting). Interacting with people, constantly, all day is draining, and the best way for me to recharge is alone. The most peaceful, energy-producing times of my day include my morning run and reading the Times during my subway ride. After every donor meeting, I need actual time to recharge before the next one. And I have a really hard time at large events, constantly being on, meeting people, and trying to charm.

For those that don’t know me well, hearing that I am an introvert is probably somewhat of a surprise. Most people, especially as it pertains to work, always see me on, and I can be very engaging. And it’s not like I can’t engage in extroverted behaviors- I think I give a decent speech, and I like doing it. And I can, at times, work the room with the best of them. But at the end of the day, I get my energy internally.

So why does this matter? Why might people need to know that I’m an introverted leader? Because I think that it presents a distinct set of challenges that we don’t always recognize. Primarily:

1) Our Society Values Extroverts: I just read Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet”, which explores the notion of how introverts can embrace their positive assets in today’s society. But one of her most salient points is the extent to which American society values extroverts. It starts in our K-12 education system- we are constantly trying to get kids to work together in groups (Generation Citizen does this). The problem is that some kids, like a younger me, actually process and learn better alone. And it continues into the work place. Almost all of our leaders are outgoing, sociable, and expert minglers. They make you feel welcome through their story-telling and smiles. Many law schools and business schools embrace this philosophy as well- utilizing a case method system in which group-work and participation is king.

2) Introverts are Judged, Sometimes Harshly: One of my jobs as a leader is to motivate my team. And I think that sometimes, I do a good job at this. But sometimes, I need to recharge. For me, this happens with my headphones in, my eyes concentrated at the computer screen ahead, attempting to drown out the rest of the world. The problem is that sometimes, when I do this, I can come off as detached, grumpy, anti-social, or a number of other fairly negative attributes. On the extreme end, I can come off as arrogant (I know better than you, so I’m not going to engage with you). I can definitely be those things, but most of the time, I simply need time to myself to work most effectively. What’s the balance between needing time to recharge internally and being aloof? Our society has not figured that out.

3) Introverts Process Information Differently: The majority of our team is comprised of extroverts, which I think is good. It means that our team likes brainstorming with each other, going over different solutions to the challenges at hand, and seeing what comes out at the other end. For me, brainstorming is often a completely futile task. I process better internally, at my desk, often times in written form. But sometimes it can seem like I cut off conversation, e-mail too much, and, at worst, do not value the opinion of others. But in reality, it’s that I literally process information differently. How can I allow groups to brainstorm while simultaneously getting others to recognize the value in processing internally?

Those are just three over-arching reasons that being an introverted leader can be challenging. But I also think that there are a myriad of benefits. I consider myself a good listener, and ask probing questions (I actually do a much better job of getting others to open up than I do at opening up myself- I’m extremely “contained” on the introversion scale). I generally think through what I’m going to say before I speak, which extroverts do not always do. And I think I’ve become effective at expressing myself through writing, which is a much more comfortable medium for me.

I do want to emphasize that I do not intend any of this to come off as value-laden (I would say that introverts can sometimes come across as defensive, largely because society does value extroverts so much more). I think there are so many benefits to being an extroverted leader. But as an introverted leader, I do think it’s important for me, and others of the same ilk, to have this conversation. Leading as an introvert can be exhausting, frustrating, and lead to misunderstandings. But it also can be an incredibly valuable experience.

– Scott