Today, when we think of great leaders, we typically think of people with charisma, booming voices and big, bold personalities.
Since the turn of the 20th century, it’s these qualities that have garnered praise, while qualities like being quiet and introspective have been seen as subpar, writes author Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
Our culture has dictated that great leaders and employees must be extroverts who are able to not only sell their companies, but also sell themselves.
Even colleges started actively choosing extroverted candidates.
“Harvard’s provost Paul Buck declared in the late 1940s that Harvard should reject the ‘sensitive, neurotic’ type and the ‘intellectually over-stimulated’ in favor of boys of the ‘healthy extrovert kind,’” Cain writes.
During the same time a dean at another university stressed the importance of finding students that corporate recruiters wanted. “So we find the best man is the one who’s had an 80 or 85 average in school and plenty of extracurricular activity. We see little use for the ‘brilliant’ introvert.’”
This, in addition to other factors, has perpetuated the belief that introverts make lousy leaders.
But introverts actually make good leaders. They just “lead with quiet confidence,” said Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of the books The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength and Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference.
There are plenty of examples of introverts who are or were great leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Charles Schwab, Brenda C. Barnes, former CEO of Sara Lee, and James Copeland, former CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, according to Cain.
Kahnweiler, a corporate consultant, speaker and coach has trained and counseled thousands of leaders. Through her work, additional interviews and research, she’s found that introverts who are good leaders do four things, which she calls the “4 P’s Process”: They prepare. They’re present. They push themselves. And they practice.
Here’s a glimpse into how introverted leaders do each one (and you can, too):
1. Introverts prepare.
When addressing their team, giving presentations or networking with colleagues, introverts don’t wing it, Kahnweiler said. “They spend time thinking through their goals and preparing for questions, which gives them an edge.”
For instance, in The Introverted Leader she gave an example of an IT leader who went to an important networking event. He requested to see the seating chart beforehand and studied the people he wanted to target at the big event. “Preparation was the key to reducing his anxiety, and it helped him secure a large account.”
2. Introverts are present.
“When introverts are with you, they’re with you,” Kahnweiler said. Because they prepare extensively, they’re able to go with the flow and stay in the present moment. They don’t multitask, instead giving individuals their full attention. They also focus and pick up on cues from others as they’re giving a talk, she said.
3. Introverts push themselves.
Introverted leaders challenge themselves, Kahnweiler said. “They’re conscious about stretching and growing.” They also help their introverted employees push themselves.
For instance, Kahnweiler’s client is an introverted leader who’s also managing an introverted employee. He’s started sending him to meetings in his place. This way he can get accustomed to this part of the job and sharpen his social skills.
4. Introverts practice.
Kahnweiler uses the analogy of injuring your hand and having to use your other hand. “You never write like you do with your dominant hand, but you learn to adjust.” For instance, if public speaking is a challenge for you, practice is what’ll help you move into mastery, according to Kahnweiler.
In The Introverted Leader, she shares several ideas for getting more practice:
“How about offering to give a recap of a recent training class at your next staff meeting? What about sharing with the team what you learned about competitive trends in your industry when visiting exhibit booths at a recent conference? Why not tell your boss you are available to present a project status report to the team he usually meets with?…Yes practice is hard and it is uncomfortable, but it is the only way to get better.”
Introverted leaders, according to Kahnweiler, also capitalize on their quiet time. They use it to reflect on their work and restore their energy. They practice engaged listening, she said. They know what’s going on with their employees, and they understand their concerns.
They also make the most of writing, she said. For instance, some leaders use social media, including blogging, to communicate their vision. They send handwritten notes to their employees. They journal to get clarity on their own ideas.
Introverts who are good leaders adapt and adjust to their environment, Kahnweiler said. But they don’t change “the essence of who they are.” As an introvert, you can be successful in your position by tapping into your natural strengths.