Introverts have long held a reputation of being the timid, socially anxious people sitting in the back of the room with their noses stuck in a book. Because of this, the idea of introverts in leadership positions seems like a contradictory concept. How will they lead if they’re afraid to speak? How will they take command if they don’t wish to be involved?
By adopting this perspective, we put introverted individuals in a confining box and also deny the diversity that exists in leadership roles. We make the assumption that the two — introverts and leaders — are conflicting concepts. However, the two can, and do, coexist.
Take 21-year-old Molly Zadell, for example.
Zadell self-identifies as an introvert. However, she has also taken on various leadership roles throughout her college experience, one of these being an executive position for a large club.
As a result of her experiences, Zadell recognizes that there are many obstacles standing in the way of introverts accessing leadership positions. One of the most significant of these is the widespread misconception of the label “introvert” itself.
Breaking the stereotype
Zadell expresses that “introverts are most commonly stereotyped as people who are shy or quiet.” She goes on to say that “sometimes it can even get pretty negative like ‘antisocial.’” This is a harmful diagnosis of introverts, because often, it is simply inaccurate.
“I love public speaking,” Zadell shares, “I love being involved, and I love going out with my friends.” According to the misleading generalizations, her interests contradict what it is to be introverted. However, Zadell emphasizes that introverted personalities have more to do with how and where you replenish your energy rather than specific traits.
“In general, it’s just that you need to take a step away,” Zadell says. “You get your energy from being alone.” For Zadell, that means putting aside a chunk of time each day with no one’s company but her own. “I need time to just be by myself and reflect, and then after that I’m able to go out and do the things I love.”
By expanding our understanding of what it is to be an introverted person, we are less likely to pigeonhole introverted individuals as socially inactive people. As a result, we open the door for them to enter positions in society in which we potentially did not see them, or even see them desiring to be in, before.
Advantage in differences
It is important to recognize that introverts in leadership positions will often lead in different ways than extroverted people would. Zadell emphasizes how, in her personal experience, variation in leadership style has worked to her advantage.
In one of her leadership roles, Zadell works with another student to head a committee. “She’s really good at running the meetings, and I tend to do all the emailing and scheduling.” By dividing the work this way, they are both able to use their strengths. In other words, Zadell is better able to lead her team because of the specific qualities she offers.
Zadell also uses the example of club meetings, which typically include 18–20 students. Though a leader of the club, Zadell expresses that during the hectic and loud moments of these meetings, she chooses to actively listen, rather than add to the noise.
“I always need time afterwards to process everything and go through pros and cons to see what would work best.” Zadell recognizes that her best contributions come after she has had time to think over things. “It’s important to have people who are quick on their feet, but I think it’s also really important to have people who are more detail-oriented, to pick through things and listen.”
Zadell asserts that “every club, team, or group project needs different personalities and different viewpoints, and it is that diversity that makes a group a lot stronger. You balance each out with your strengths and weaknesses.”
She also notes the difference in how she goes about communicating with her committee members. Rather than speaking to large numbers at once, she works at more of a personal level. “I try to give people one-on-one attention and feedback, because that’s something I really appreciate.” By using her personal preferences to better relate to others, Zadell finds an effective way to not just lead, but genuinely connect with those who answer to her.
As a senior approaching graduation, Zadell is in the thick of the job search, and though she has spent years in college as an effective leader, she still gets nervous that her introverted personality will hurt her chances of getting a job. She admits that “there are a lot of industries where people are expected to be aggressive and cutthroat, and that’s just not who I am.”
Despite her worries, Zadell’s experience as a capable leader have encouraged her to stand by who she is. “I think in the past I would have tried to come across as much more outgoing, but I’ve embraced who I am and recognize that’s not a bad thing.” Instead, she shares, “I’m trying to emphasize my skills that I have as an introvert.”
Whether that’s being a good listener, having strong writing skills, or possessing a love of the behind-the-scenes work that many people aren’t as interested in, Zadell has learned to highlight the qualities that define her.
Though the label of introvert has been stained by misunderstandings, rising leaders such as Zadell who not only identify as introverts but use that aspect of their personality to their advantage are both redefining society’s understanding of introverts and encouraging others to do the same.
“A lot of times there’s a pressure to pretend to be more extroverted or put on a different personality when you’re in leadership roles.” But Zadell advises to stick with what works for you. “Don’t be afraid to just listen, do what you need to do to process, and then convey what you’re feeling.”
It’s not easy to break free of the labels attached to us. Rather than allow them to discourage us, however, we can use those defining qualities to transcend the limitations that stereotypes place on us. From there, in the words of Zadell, “we can do great things!”