My husband and I each sat on tiny chairs moving side to side to feel comfortable in our daughter’s fifth-grade class. My eyes constantly moved from glancing at the window and then meeting her teacher’s eyes. She was across the kids' table with her stack of papers about our daughter.
“Can you please encourage her to speak up more by calling her out in the class for answers?” I reluctantly asked my child’s 5th-grade teacher.
She paused, flashed a warm smile, and responded “Mrs. Doshi, she is a wonderful kid. She is quiet but very determined. She shows her leadership qualities by listening intently and problem-solving. Once she is done with her work, she will look around the room and see if anyone needs help and that is her leadership style! Even though she isn’t raising her hand and isn’t talkative, I know she is a leader in her own way.”
That day during our child’s parent-teacher conference not only did I learn that my kid is brilliant, knows her strengths, and is a leader in her own way, but I also learnt a lesson in leadership styles. As an introverted child of an introverted mother, I have always parented her from a place of fear. Fear of getting outcasted and labeled as boring and uninterested.
People around me have always misunderstood my quietness as apathy and I have been left out because people perceived me as lackluster. I didn’t want my child to go through the same. I would constantly “encourage” her to talk to new people, “gently” nudging her towards a group of kids at the bus stop.
I was convinced that to be successful, you must be this dominant, vibrant, outgoing personality who is loved by people. And for the longest time, I tried to change that about myself, trying to emulate outgoing personalities. Not only might I have hampered her self-confidence, but also her ability to understand and have her own boundaries. But that day, after being on this planet for several decades I had my eyes opened and I am grateful for it.
General perception and an unsaid understanding in our society is that leadership and introversion don’t go hand in hand, however they aren’t mutually exclusive as it is made out to be. I could just recommend the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain and end my article. It is the bible for introverts.
I believe sharing my own experiences and my journey of creating space for a new leadership approach with fellow introverted women in tech, is something different I can provide.
With this article, I aim for two things to happen:
- Introverted women embrace their introversion and share it with those around them.
- Everyone else becomes more aware that being quiet, demure, and soft-spoken aren’t deterrents to leadership. Introverts have a unique brilliance which may manifest differently from what they are used to seeing.
My definition of leadership as an introvert
I want to start by removing the default extrovert packaging around leadership and see what it looks like. Armed with my curiosity and by observing various leaders (introverts and extroverts), the definition of a leader I came up with was:
A leader is someone who has a vision and can align / gather people to achieve that vision. Period.
While observing various introverted leaders, I never encountered any evidence suggesting that the sole path to leadership required charisma or extroversion. In a society that often favors extroversion, the belief that extroverts are inherently more suited for leadership is a perception, not a concrete reality. Several studies support this – you can read some here, here and here.
But the truth is that we all can be leaders – introverted or extroverted. Just like there are numerous ways to go from LA to NY, there are numerous ways to get to leadership, no matter how starkly opposite they are. Neither is better than the other, but it can be counterproductive when an introvert takes the way that is carved out by extroverts and vice versa.
Extroverts: demonstrate leadership by being vocal, mobilizing crowds, delegating openly and creating a fun environment. They show clarity and guidance by quick decision-making. Comfortable taking risks – don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. Show assertiveness – gives teams focus and direction. Project self-confidence and high energy – mobilize the crowd. Their approach is more collaborative.
After a quick Google search of qualities that make a good leader, I came up with the list below. I started differentiating how extroverts embody those qualities and how introverts can use tools that are inherent to them to achieve the same qualities.
Exercise for you: What are other leadership skills (in addition to the ones mentioned above)? Write them down, especially if they are required in your leadership role. Can you remove the extrovert wrapping from it and see how your introverted skills can be used to achieve them?
I believe there are far more qualities that are needed in a leader depending on what they are trying to achieve. So, feel free to create your own approach for a skill needed for you as a leader and see how your introverted tools can help you get there. For that, you need to know what the inherent introvert qualities are and how they can become our modus operandi because they come naturally to us.
Do you know what’s in your tool belt?
The tools within extrovert and introvert tool belts are different. So, if you are looking to achieve a goal using a tool in an extrovert's tool belt as an introvert, you will be highly disappointed and give up on the goal entirely.
All the “templates” out there for leadership success are usually built with extroverts in mind. As an introvert, if you can't apply those templates, it can lead you to believe you can’t be a great leader. So, I sat down and started creating my own leadership template.
With my experience in product management, I started with gap analysis. I started with what I already have – my introverted qualities, my skill set, and my work experience. From there I also made note of the skills I need to be a leader. Finally, I mapped out my inherent skills to the leadership milestones that I was aiming for. Most introverts I have met don’t map their skills to the leadership milestones and hence fall back to the default approaches that are extrovert-friendly. It worked for a little while, but eventually, it led me to burn out or feeling that I was not a good leader. Here is how I went about it:
1) I like to be prepared and research well before any event, meeting, 1-1 calls or huge executive presentations. This allows me to be able to be my most confident self. I’m able to lead a team toward a direction with the groundwork I do. If an answer is needed on the spot, I ask for prep time ranging from a few minutes to a few days if needed. “Can I get back to you on this” is my go-to phrase.
2) I am an excellent listener and observer. I not only listen to what is being said but also watch for body language and unsaid cues. I use all this data to provide a holistic response. This isn’t possible if you are always speaking off the cuff. I rephrase what I heard and understood which has helped build trust and understanding. This is paramount as a leader. And listening allows me to get a high-level and detailed level picture and present well-thought-out solutions. My solutions will have pros and cons, impact analysis, and then my proposal for buy-in. I have seen this helps bring different team members working on different areas on the same level and helps with alignment quicker. I asked each person what their thoughts were, so I understood their POV which helped my team feel seen and heard.
3) I am empathetic and I don’t mean to brag about this as a moral quality. But being empathetic allows me to put myself in someone else's shoes and be attuned to nuances that many people miss. Not only has this helped me as a product manager to be in tune with my customers and stakeholders but also as a leader, to reinforce the idea that I have their back when I ask them why we missed a deadline.
4) As someone who took a career break and restarted a new career, I was curious to learn and started asking a lot of questions in a room full of experts. The skill of fearlessly asking questions that I gained has strengthened my curiosity and removed the fear of asking questions in any form – big or small. Initially, I used the message section of the call and quickly graduated to politely interrupting to ask my question.
5) I figured out that writing is my best medium of communication and since then I have leveraged it as much as possible. It gives me the space and time to think and write something impactful and/or meaningful. I will message people with questions and write emails to summarize my understanding. I write things down that I am going to talk about. This helps me with pacing myself when I talk, and I can get great engagement from my audience.
6) I used to feel lost in networking conferences, happy hours etc. Slowly I realized that I was great at 1-1 connections. I have since used this approach to my benefit and reached out to people prior to meetings in a 1-1 format to hear them and their side. Not only was I always prepared and in the know of what was going to be said in the meeting, but I was able to gain trust from my stakeholders since they felt listened to. Also, any action items coming out of the 1-1 were resolved prior to the larger meeting.
Exercise for you: What are your skills and experiences? Can you map them as an approach to a leadership quality you wish to build?
In conclusion, I want to summarize the following:
- If you are an introvert, stop using templates that mark the path to leadership using extroverted tools. Not because they are bad but because you have different tools.
- Identify your inherent tools that you have easy access to and build your own approach to leadership.
- Use those introverted tools/skills that come easily to you and achieve extraordinary results as you grow into a courageous leader.