Ask an introvert and an extrovert what defines a great conversation. Introverts enjoy spending time with one or a very select number of individuals, and in-depth conversations are rewarding. Extroverts love talking to many people. The more they engage, the more they are fired up. But an introvert needs time to reflect, explore ideas and carefully consider their options. They do reach out but also need to pull in and weigh all the data points.
Society values and has popularized extroverts. Think of most of our advertisements; fun is always in the context of a party, large gatherings, and big venues. Fun is never portrayed as putting on your noise-canceling headset to listen to Drake’s latest CD, or streaming a movie by yourself or completing the world’s largest crossword puzzle. Introverts get a bad rap; they are seen as shy, cool and detached.
Society has read introverts wrong. Just think of the composition of great teams; teams with synergies require balance. If a team was made up of all extroverts, great ideas may get lost with all that static. As it is, introverts need to work hard to interject themselves.
A significant number of my executive coaching clients are introverts. They are being asked by their leaders to have a voice at the table. This is not always easy for them as they tend to be polite and wait their turn. By then though, it’s too late and a noisy peer jumps in and takes the glory.
One of my coaching clients generally resists speaking up as she worries she doesn’t have all the answers. Should she want to advance as a leader, she will be required to challenge her peers. If she doesn't, she runs the risk of being a follower. This is echoed by one of my most senior clients when he stated, “If members of my executive team do not speak up, I assume they have nothing to say.” Powerful statement, but so true.
It may be easier for an introvert to shift towards being more outward than for extroverts to restrain themselves. Extroverts work hard to stay still. A majority of forthright leaders are advised by their executives to improve their listening skills.
Here’s a case in point. One of my clients decided I needed some feedback. He stated that I should formulate my leadership guidance in the context of “he shoots, he scores.” I asked him what he meant by that and he said, “Talk faster. I should get what I need from you within 5–10 minutes.” I reminded him that the platform for our coaching engagement was designed to enhance his stakeholder capabilities. This meant actively listening and learning to incorporate other views.
When we watch introverts, their leadership style does not fit the stereotype of front-of-the-room charismatic presence. Their energy is not bouncing off the walls. They have a different vibe. Their style can be equally compelling.
I would argue that introverts are indeed charismatic, just in a different way. They are experts at lobbying for support, they do it by attracting one vote at a time. Before they know it, they have created a groundswell. They are great listeners, they are methodical, they vet ideas, and they provide the necessary due diligence. So all of you introverts take heed. You have earned an equal place as impactful leaders.
Cindy Wahler, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a leadership consultant specializing in executive coaching and talent management. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org