I’m tired of conquering
I’d rather sit with some good book
But if I stop conquering
Somebody else will take the things I took!
-Emperor Kublai Khan, “Uneasy Lies the Head,” in the musical The Adventures of Marco Polo
Can an introvert be a leader?
Yes, says author Susan Cain, but only when we stop equating leadership with being loud, talkative, high-energy, and good with crowds.
Introverts can be dazzling in social settings when they get to ask deep questions, or to talk about their passions–as long as they get enough opportunity afterwards to recharge and reflect. (Perhaps with a good book, like Kublai Khan in the song lyric I quoted.)
Cain shows that the Extrovert Ideal, as she calls it, is relatively new. Before the 20th century, having a good character was more important than having a good personality. Manners, morals, and honor mattered more than magnetism, attractiveness, and energy.
It is also culturally specific. She shows that Asian culture values quiet persistence, and people who honor relationships, over boldness and people who promote themselves.
But so what? Today, in the U.S., what power can introverts bring to your organization?
- Prevent bad decisions. The introvert in the room is more likely to point out that we don’t have enough information to be so certain. Listening to introverts might have saved a lot of banks from making a lot of risky mortgages, perhaps preventing the Great Recession.
- Avoid “shiny object syndrome.” Introverts will help keep you on track and on task. They are less likely to be caught up in the next new thing. They look before you leap.
- Assess risks more accurately. Introverts’ brains are wired to react less strongly to the prospect of reward than extroverts’ are. If someone is throwing good money after bad, or aiming to win at a cost that should be prohibitive, it’s probably not the introvert!
- Delegate and empower. Introverts listen more carefully to team members and subordinates and support their efforts to do their most interesting work.
- Talk about what’s important. Extroverts do a lot of social chat before they get down to business. Introverts, unless they are also shy, don’t need ice-breakers. They need the sense that your organization is addressing what matters. (That may then give them the ease to talk socially and form friendships at work, but not until they are sure you’re paying attention.)
Readers of my blog know that I call myself a “friendly introvert.” I enjoy public speaking. At a party, I introduce people to one another and keep the conversation going. I train other professionals, chair meetings, tutor teenagers, and go to two book clubs and a neighborhood Scrabble game a month. People who know me think I’m warm and caring
So what makes me an introvert? At some point, I hit a wall. Being around people stops being exciting and starts to exhaust me. Like the author of the Rebecca Review, “I’m often drained of all energy after being with people for extended periods of time, but being with a book can set me on fire with creativity and energy.”
One-third to one-half of the people you meet are like me that way. Lots of them can lead. Rosa Parks, Warren Buffett, Al Gore, and Stephen Wozniak prove that. Does your organization provide the environment where introverts can flourish, and where extroverts and introverts can make each other stronger? Read Cain’s book to figure out how you can unite…and conquer.