I would never have guessed that five-year-old Diana, who was so painfully shy that teachers thought she was ESL, would grow into the type of woman with "manager" and "supervisor" on her resume. I'd never guess that the little girl who had tremendous anxiety every time she had to raise her hand to ask for a bathroom pass would eventually be told by her friends to "lead on".
And yet, when I reflect on growing up as a sensitive introvert, it all makes sense.
As someone who is naturally observant, thoughtful, sensitive, and empathic, you may wonder how you can be "leaderly" in a culture that perceives leaders to be the exact opposite: brash, ballsy, and all about the bottom line. Here's the truth: there's a difference between acting like a so-called leader and actually being a leader.
You, my friend, most likely have some natural gifts that lend well to being a real leader--whether in the sense of holding an official title at work, or more unofficially within your circle of friends, family, classroom, and community.
And I know that calling yourself a "leader" might feel kinda funny at first. Leadership, to me, isn't some big title or position; it's simply doing what you know is good and right regardless of the obstacles.
From personal experience, I know there's a couple conundrums that introverts can face in leadership, especially in the beginning. We want to help people and avoid them at the same time, which gets tough when we have teams, loved ones, or clients who count on us. We are visionaries and don't make good followers, but this often clashes with the (often false) assumption that we enjoy "managing" others!
Despite these unique challenges of introverted leaders, I don't believe there needs to be a "solution" to them because I don't consider them to be problems. It's simply a matter of positioning yourself to make the biggest impact given your natural strengths. Think J.K. Rowling and Beyonce: despite how different their personas are, both women are extremely influential in their own way because they play to their individual strengths.
My purpose here is to shift your view on what you can or cannot do, and who you can or cannot be. I've met and worked with countless women who are simply brilliant and are capable of amazing things, but who are playing small because, quite frankly, it's easy to do so when you live in a culture that perceives femininity, introversion, and sensitivity as weaknesses.
It's time for the tough love smackdown: you can be strong and influential when you stop trying to act like the extroverted leader that you think other people want, and start being the visionary leader you naturally are.
If you're honest with yourself, you know that you're meant for more than this. You have the ability and the drive to serve a specific cause, population, or mission. You have a vision of a better world, one that's healthier and more just. Pull that vision into the real world like I know you can. Do this by simply using the goods you've got.
Keep reading for 5 introvert-friendly strategies that I've used to successfully create a positive impact on the people around me or the cause that I care about--because ultimately, that's the whole purpose of leading. Hopefully you'll find these strategies valuable, as well.
I've given you concrete calls-to-action for each strategy; feel free to do all of them this week, or just try the one that's most relevant to your current situation. You're the boss.
Lead by example
Authentic action speaks louder than words.
We have more than enough words floating around our offices, schools, and homes; there will never be a shortage of chit chat around the water cooler, unnecessarily long meetings, and unwelcome mansplaining. The good news is that there's absolutely no need for us to add to all this tiresome verbiage if we don't want to.
We're naturally inclined towards authenticity, genuine conversation, as-needed interaction, and doing what we know is right without having to consult with a bunch of other people.
Basically, our thoughtful decisions lead to thoughtful actions. We'd rather cut through the bullshit by acting on a conscientious decision rather than talking it to death. Interestingly, this promotes efficiency and decisiveness--which has traditionally been viewed as something that loud, aggressive people are better at.
DO THIS: Use your thoughtfulness and to-the-point interactions to put a decision into action this week. It's important to discuss what you'll be doing with those who might be affected, but once you finalize your decision, just do it openly and unapologetically.
Share your innovative ideas
Introverts are often creative and intuitive people. This is because we're often in our heads, playing with ideas and constantly trying to solve problems or figure out how to make things better. In short, we are idea machines!
Some of the most innovative programming ideas I came across when I worked in the non-profit sector were from my introverted colleagues, who had already thought out the "why" and "how" of their ideas even before they got to me. And most importantly, I knew that their ideas were not tainted by their egos or mere desire to "climb the ladder"--all their ideas were primarily for the benefit of the cause and the communities we served.
And, truth be told, I did end up "climbing the ladder" when I used this strategy, because it led me to show initiative and independent thinking, which are apparently useful leadership qualities.
DO THIS: Use your love of ideation and your empathic nature to come up with a new idea for helping your clients, loved ones, or coworkers this week. Share it with at least one person.
Plan ahead, a.k.a. stay organized
The dark side of being in our heads so much is that it can lead to neuroticism and anxiety--which I really had to struggle with in my twenties. However, by my thirties, I've learned to channel all this excess energy into planning and organizing.
Apparently, this ability to see into the future, organize or delegate other people's tasks, and map out solutions or strategies in a systematic way is super useful. In an effort to assuage my own anxiety at my old job, I created an orientation manual, tracked the annual budget, and created programmatic goals. All of this was to just make sure that I was on track, but once my colleagues caught wind of it, they loved it. And so did my bosses.
Planning ahead, forecasting our needs, and staying organized came naturally to me because it simply made me feel better--but it also made the whole office feel better, too.
DO THIS: Use your detail-oriented and big-picture thinking to prepare for the future, whether that means scheduling important appointments on the communal calendar, calling folks together to discuss a red flag you've noticed in this year's budget, or delegating tasks fairly to get a job done quicker. Remember, the point isn't to nag or micromanage others. Simply use your natural planning and organizing skills to plan and organize!
Hold the vision
As sensitive introverts, we're probably a bit more idealistic and purpose-driven than most. We rarely do things "just for the paycheck" or "to get by" or to live and then die. We're here for a purpose. And while we're alive, we're going to contribute as much as we can.
We're also capable of (and enjoy) very abstract thinking, which is necessary for connecting the day-to-day tasks of work or family life to a bigger vision. "Holding the vision" entails reminding others of the meaning behind the mundane.
This also overlaps with planning and organizing: you have the natural ability to hold the "big picture" in mind as you do the more concrete stuff of setting goals, arranging tasks, and doing other not-so-glamorous things on a daily basis.
DO THIS: Use your abstract thinking and your heart-centered way of being to remind at least one person of why you're all doing this--or even just why you are doing this (a la Strategy 1: leading by example). Speak it in a meeting, phone call, family dinner, or during a lunch break. Write it in a memo, email, or on the whiteboard.
It's impossible to lead without trust. (Otherwise, it's tyranny.)
Fortunately, introverts have the potential to be absolute wizards at building trust, if only we leverage our talent for listening. We don't just hear people's words; we also have the capacity to empathize, intuit, and observe.
Listening deeply is how you will understand what your people need, both in the moment and far into the future. It's how you'll be able to perceive both sides of an argument. This is how you will earn the trust, loyalty, and respect of those who share your cause, home, or workspace.
Sensitive introverts are often labeled as healers, advocates, and diplomats. Open-mindedness and advocating for the best compromise is what comes naturally to us, and to anyone who knows how to listen deeply.
DO THIS: Use your gifts of observation, intuition, empathy, and sensitivity to solve a problem or manage conflict peacefully this week. All problems and conflicts boil down to differing needs: you have the insight to understand what each of those needs are, even when it might not be obvious to others.
Now, I have a serious question for you: what does it mean to you to live a good life? Does it need to be easy, trouble-free, and luxurious to be "good"? I mean, that would be nice, but most people I know want more than that. A fulfilling life also requires meaning, and we find that through purpose.
I don't believe that you need to (or should) be an aggressive and masculine extrovert to make the impact that you want to make. Introverts make a different kind of leader--one that changes the world with creativity, compassion, and sharp insight.
But it can be both intimidating and exhausting to tackle your big dreams when your body is telling you it just wants to go home and curl up on the couch with a book. It probably also doesn't help that our culture still has a hard time treating sensitive introverts as leaders.
Basically, to truly pursue your purpose and make an impact, you will butt heads with your introverted personality non-stop.
Helping people still requires talking to people, bringing your big vision to life still requires navigating unsettling environments and social situations, and living as a sensitive and empathic person still puts you at risk of chronic stress, burnout, and empathic fatigue.
You know that the discomfort of pursuing your purpose is totally worth it, but you do need to preserve your own well-being so that you'll actually have the energy to make the big impact you want to make.
That's why I created Purpose & Productivity for Introverts: How to Be Well While Doing Good. If you're ready to get guidance on leveraging your quiet strengths and staying resilient as you pursue your passion projects, save your seat in the class for free by entering your info below.
It's a loud world out there, my friend, but I know this to be true: you will change the world in your own quiet way. Lead with your actions, your vision, and your compassion.
In short, do what you do best.