Becoming a leader = embracing introversion & anxiety to take action + reframing my understanding of leadershipFeatured

In May 2020, I joined my organization as a fresh graduate out of university. Even with two years of internship experience under my belt, I was still nervous. Anxious thoughts swirled in my mind on a regular basis.

“I know I can manage myself; am I capable of managing others?”

“I know I have to give my team some guidance; are they becoming overly reliant on me?”

“I know I’m clear on where my responsibilities with cross-functional team members begin and end; are these boundaries clear to my team?”

A year and a half later, I’m a lot more comfortable and self-confident in my position. Never did I imagine that I would be able to lead a DevOps team as a quiet and somewhat anxious, Asian woman.

We’re told stories of having to fit a certain persona to be an effective leader—a charismatic, ambitious, and confident (ideally, Caucasian) male. Instead, I’ve learned to harness taking action in accordance to behavioural tendencies typically attributed to being introverted—active listening, keen observation, and self-reflection—and the tendencies associated with being anxious—overthinking. By leveraging these actions, I empower and inspire my teammates to make robust decisions, collaborate with each other, and execute effectively.

Action #1: Actively listen

Steven R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” As a servant leader, my ultimate goal is to best serve my teammates, to enable them to do their best work in each of their respective areas of expertise. This requires understanding their perspective, the thought process behind their stances on topics that impact the team, and paying attention to what they don’t mention. I find the last item is particularly important to look out for because it may signal issues which aren’t directly related to the current topic of discussion. These issues tend to be more systemic in nature, which take more intention and patience to chip away at resolving.

A technique that helps me focus on seeking understanding rather than looking to respond is “going meta”—summarizing a perspective in my own words to get the rest of the team onto the same page, pointing out when a teammate hasn’t directly responded to another teammate’s question, identifying elephants in the room that the team hasn’t yet mentioned or addressed, or even reminding my team to really listen to the ideas being exchanged so that we can all stay in alignment and arrive at the best decision based on known information at the time.

Action #2: Continuously observe actions and words

Sun Tzu, legendary military strategist and philosopher from ancient China, asserted, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” We’re only human, so naturally, we each have our unique strengths and weaknesses. Altogether, we are capable of creating more value and impact than if we were to approach projects and initiatives alone.

When I started working in my organization, my supervisor provided me with a rundown of each team member so that I had a sense of each team member’s strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge informed me of who to approach, depending on the subject matter I was looking for. I also keep this sense “updated” by keeping tabs of what each team member says or does, especially when I perceive it as being out-of-character, and following up with them in one-on-ones to ask them about what was on their mind at the time. By tending to these relationships on an ongoing basis, I better understand their perception and interpretation of reality. I challenge my mental models about my teammates by predicting what they might do or say in response to unexpected situations that inevitably arise and comparing my predictions with their actions or words.

Action #3: Self-reflect

Buddha said, "Dwell not on the faults and shortcomings of others; instead, seek clarity about your own." As a leader, I take a moment to think before responding to someone because I have to be careful about how I word things—I don’t want my team to think I’m consciously or subconsciously trying to impose a certain opinion on them.

At the end of each work day, I journal about conversations I had, decisions that were made, and anything else about the work day that I found interesting. Then, I think about the conversations I was involved in and consider if there was anything I could have phrased differently or anything I could have asked questions about. Going back to my previous actions, as a leader, it’s important to learn as much as I can about each of my teammates, so any opportunity to be curious and potentially gain a more complete understanding of their perspective is incredibly valuable.

Another item I focus on is if my actions at any point of that day contradicted anything I had set or any of the guardrails my team and I have put into place. I’m a big believer in the saying, “Actions speak louder than words,” and I need my team to see that I both walk the walk and talk the talk.

The last thing I reflect on is if there were any moments where my perceptions about someone on my team were challenged by something they said or did. It’s important for me to keep my implicit biases and perceptions in check so that I’m as objectively fair as I can be when interacting with everyone on my team—both on an individual and collective basis. When I do come across a situation where my perceptions about someone are challenged by new data, I “go meta” with myself to figure out what types of situations or topics I need to pay close attention to when engaging with the team member to avoid continually propagating the projections of my perceptions.

Action #4: Reframe your perspective about your “flaws”

Let me preface this by saying how grateful I am that my levels of anxiety are by no means debilitating in my day-to-day life, which I’m well aware of can’t be said for many others living with anxiety.

Admittedly, I used to perceive anxiety as a strictly negative condition to live with due to the mental health stigmas surrounding it.

However, I’ve consciously changed my mindset around it to view it for what it is—an evolutionary survival mechanism that kept our ancestors aware of their surroundings and increased their chances of surviving the great outdoors. Whenever I start having the thought that I’m overthinking, I remind myself, “You’re just doing your best to look out for your team, organization, and yourself. There’s no need to talk trash about this behaviour.” I’ve also started expressing longer-term concerns with my manager and skip-level manager so I can bounce off my ideas for potentially addressing the concerns and getting a sanity check from them—”Is my fussing about it now productive, or is this a ‘future us problem’ to deal with when the time comes?”

My challenge to you

Diverse leaders bring about hope and inspiration to those diverse teammates they lead. If you believe you need to meet certain behavioral criteria to become an effective leader, that becomes your reality, and more likely than not, you will chase after a vision of yourself that you were not innately meant for nor would you find joy in.

I encourage everyone with an interest in stepping into a formal or informal leadership position to reflect on if and/or which limiting beliefs you hold about yourself and the narratives your brain automatically tells itself to persuade yourself away from achieving this goal. The worst thing you can do is box yourself into a corner and convince yourself you’re not “x” enough to lead others. Instead, challenge your self-talk by asking yourself, “Why can’t I lead others, despite ‘y’?” and “How can I leverage ‘z’ to become an effective leader?”