Being an Introverted Leader
By Matheus Tait
I will start with some (overly simplified) concepts because people sometimes mix shyness and introversion.
- Shy: A shy person is frightened of public exposure. There is a component of fear involved. They don’t necessarily want or like to be alone. Being shy, so they say (at least my therapist does), is something you can change
- Introvert: Introverted people get drained after spending much time with others. They usually enjoy other people a lot but also love and need time alone after many interactions. I will reinforce: they need some time alone to recharge
- Extroverts: On the other hand, lack of social interaction may make extroverts feel depleted and fatigued
To end this short concept alignment, not all introverted people are shy, and not all shy people are introverted. And to be clear, an extrovert can be shy.
I am shy and introverted at high levels. The way I cope with each of those characteristics is very different. This text from now on is about learning to be an introverted leader.
The young Matheus (or, the Resistant Leader)
Looking back, I was always a very introverted person. I could pick several embarrassing or funny examples of my childhood or, even worse, as a teenager, to share. Still, I share just one current anecdotal example:
Suppose I need to take the garbage out, for instance. I’ll listen through the door to ensure there are no neighbours outside. Then I’ll leave my apartment only when it is silent to avoid being with someone in the elevator. Imagine that, 30 seconds close to someone without a need? No way I will endure this suffering!
Let us go into my leadership journey. After all, this is the theme of this article. I have a background in software engineering and have worked for about 15+ years writing software till I had my first leadership role as a tech lead/PM. I never, really, never imagined myself in a leadership position. I had in my mind that this was for extroverted people.
Until one day, my project leader of around 20 people resigned from the company. Her leaving was a surprise, and our managers did not have a backup plan. To add to this, we had a harsh deadline coming on for a challenging project. Hiring and onboarding a new person to the domain did not seem feasible in time. Our managers decided on an exciting approach (first time in that company): they did an anonymous election within the team to elect their new leader. And to my surprise, I won. I accepted the challenge primarily for fear of being fired or something similar. Today, I do not think it would happen, but I was way more naive by that time.
And it worked. I had to learn a lot about my personality, and most of this was related to being introverted. But it worked.
I moved around several companies and roles. Until one day, someone invited me to leave software projects and try senior leadership roles: delivery manager, general manager, and finally managing director and member of the company’s global leadership team.
I used to call myself a Resistant Leader and presented myself this way to people until very recently.
The current Matheus (or, the Introverted Leader)
Let’s jump some years into the future. I have been working for a while since the mid-’90s. I lead various projects and businesses in different countries and continents. And you know what? I am still a very introverted and shy person. And that is fine.
I was doing some reflections about my career with my coach recently. And I had a new insight: I should stop calling and introducing myself as a Resistant Leader. I am already comfortable in the position and have data to prove my results. After that, I sometimes call and introduce myself as an Introverted Leader. Which is very different. It required a lot of effort to beat imposter syndrome.
The list of everything I learned on this journey is vast, but I’ll share 10 items that worked for me. No particular order of importance, just some things that come to my mind as I type. They do not necessarily apply to everyone, and I hope some can find them helpful.
Some learnings about being an Introverted Leader
1. It is not a problem to be solved: As I said before. Where you sit in the spectrum of introverted to extroverted is a characteristic, like being tall. In the same way I sometimes regret losing the chance to speak, I hear from my extroverted colleagues that they sometimes regret having said too much. Everyone regrets something.
Fun story: I once had training on negotiation techniques from a well-known business school. The teacher said a great strategy to extract information from extroverts is to stop talking and create silence. Oftentimes they will start talking without thinking just to fill the space. This does not work on introverts :)
2. Capitalize on your strengths: Both social profiles have their strengths. So it is not about changing who you are. It is about knowing the things you can do better because of it and investing in them.
As an introvert, you are likely a good listener, which can lead to practicing empathy if you want. You are also probably good at systemic thinking, analytical thinking, finding patterns, and connecting dots. Maybe you will not be the one who shines and steals the stage in a big group. But on the other hand, you are probably quite good at connecting in a 1:1 closer conversation. Discover what works for you and use it.
3. Recharge moments: At the end of the day, the start of everything that comes along with introversion is the fact the social iteration drains us. Try to control your day to have some moments to recharge, especially after or before an intense social event or meeting. Insert moments for a quick walk, a meditation, water, or a book. Sometimes a lunch alone with just my book works well for me. Try not to have too many draining events in a sequence and spread them in your day. Whatever works for you.
Practical tip: It works well if I schedule my calls to start 5 minutes past the hour. It never worked when I tried the opposite, planning them to finish 5 minutes before the hour.
4. Talk about it with your close team: Sometimes, letting your team members know you help a lot.
I had some feedback in the past that I was arrogant. I could not believe I heard that. It was so different from my self-image. I tried to understand it more, and I discovered that team members misinterpreted my lunches alone or my non-participation in some gatherings outside of work. By the way, if I am at a party, I’ll be the one playing with the cats in the back and the first to disappear. Eventually, when I explained how I function, things got better.
5. Fake it till you make it: When I wrote point 4. above, I was not suggesting that you should not ever go to social events or lunch with your friends. Common sense, please. The Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want .”Sometimes we need to do stuff we don’t like. What I was saying is to try to reach some balance and that talking about it helps.
6. Networking events: Networking events can be a nightmare until they aren’t. I learned that networking is way more than actual events. Events sometimes are effective. Most of the time, they are not. Consistency in helping other people in small acts build up to be more powerful than punctual spotlights on specific occasions. Nevertheless, they exist, and, again, sometimes they are needed. I learned something recently that helped me to reduce the pressure.
This one is recent; it happened this year. We had a global face-to-face event with all my company’s global leaders. The first one after almost three years due to the pandemics. I was very excited by it on the one hand. Seeing all those colleagues again is always excellent. But I was nervous, on the other hand: intense days with dinners, breakfasts, meetings, and lunches. Every day. For a week. Working with my coach again, I got to a solution that worked like a charm. I realized I did not need to become a “party person” or the center of attention. So I made a plan: I decided to connect with four different people during the whole week. That was my mission. I had a straightforward goal of whom to speak to and why. In the end, I did it. I connected and had lovely conversations with those 4 (and some more). It relieved the pressure I was putting on my shoulders.
7. Preparation: As I prepared for the networking event of the previous point, I always try to prepare for important meetings. We, introverts, need to analyze lots of things. So if we prepare in advance, read about the topic, have some questions available beforehand, etc., we do way better. Depending on the event, I even visit the facilities before to get to know the place. You will call me crazy, but sometimes I even have escape routes.
8. Facilitated meetings: Sometimes, it is hard for us introverts to get space to talk in a forum. The more people, the harder it is to request the word. This happens for several reasons, and according to research, most introverted people even feel invisible from time to time. Facilitated meetings help a lot, and the good old post-its as well. Sometimes brainstorming in writing also does the trick. In big zoom calls, break-out rooms are excellent. Take a look at different facilitation techniques. It will help you and all other introverted people from your team to contribute.
Very specific to remote work, I am finding stuff like the “Raise your hand” feature very handy. As well as the chat room, sometimes dropping a “can I share some things after you finish your thought” there helps a lot.
9. Surround yourself with complementary people: We often work in teams. One of the powerful things in groups is diversity and complementarity. In a well-designed team, people with different backgrounds, skills, and profiles will work together, complementing each other. A good combination of Introverts + Extroverts is surprisingly effective. Aligned to that, directly ask for help from our team members to cover your blind spots. Incentivize them to do the same with you.
10. Self Awareness: Maybe this item here replaces all the others. So if you need to stick to one, stick to this one. In a nutshell: Know (and be) yourself. Both social profiles fit any work, and combining both on an inclusive team is just magic!
I could go on and on. More examples came to my mind as I wrote this list. But I will keep my initial commitment to keep the list to 10 items. If you want to go deeper, some of my reading material below are nice references.
11. Extra topic (or easter egg??) if you got to this point: This is for extroverted leaders. If you are an extrovert reading this, think about how to use this to include and make your introverted colleagues more spontaneous. They exist in your team right now, and if you allow them to be spontaneous, you’ll see their actual value.
It is just who we are
Introverts’ brains are wired differently from extroverted ones, and introverts will continue to be introverts.
That is not a problem to be fixed. It is instead a characteristic such as being tall. I remember how often I have listened to unaware leaders’ feedback along the lines of “Stop being so introverted.” Please don’t do this! Help people find ways to contribute while being who they are.
Most people are somewhere on a spectrum between a hardcore introvert on one side and an extremely extrovert on the other side. It is not binary.
We are not alone
Maybe because we are usually silent, in the past, I often thought that I was the only introvert at the table. Eventually, I learned that introverts make up between 40 to 60 percent of the workforce. When I started talking about this, I found out that many of my colleagues around me are as introverted as I am. If you are a business leader, some food for thought: By engaging introverts, retention increases.
Specific about introverted leaders
Not directly about introversion, but present on this reflection somehow:
Originally published at https://www.thoughtworks.com on 26th August.