What I learned about leadership from an introvert

By every definition of the term, I’m an extrovert. I enjoy being around people—constantly. They energize me.

And, ironically, my favorite person to be with is an introvert. Even after 33 years of marriage, I can’t seem to get enough time with my bride. Anna describes me as her bumble-bee, always flittering about until she shoos me away. We laugh about that, but it’s true. I hang around a lot (who could blame me?) and she needs her space (who could blame her?).



That relational tension has fomented a lot of discussion about the differences between introverts and extroverts. Over the years, I’ve sought her counsel to better understand the introverts in the organizations that I’ve led. She’s taught me some pretty important lessons:

  • Don’t dismiss introversion as a minority or liability. Despite leadership practices that favor extroverted behavior, introverts are not as rare as you might think. Fifty years ago, it was widely believed that introverts were about a quarter of the adult population. A much more recent study by Myers-Briggs organization shows a slight edge to introverts (50.7% to 49.3%) in the US. If you’re an extrovert, you’d do well as a leader to consider how you engage them to draw out the riches they have to offer.
  • Don’t misjudge an introvert’s first response. Extroverts by their nature process externally. We say what we think—as we think it—and often learn from “thinking out loud.” We are like a fast-flowing river. What you see is what you get; a fast ride through the white waters. Introverts, on the other hand, are like a deep still pond. To bring out the pond’s treasures, you have to dive deep. As a leader, when you put an idea in front of an extrovert you’ll likely get an immediate opinion. What may be lacking in accuracy is made up for in enthusiasm. Put that same idea in front of an introvert, however, and you may erroneously conclude from their unenthusiastic response that they are not “on board,” when, in fact, they’re giving it more deliberate thought than their extroverted colleague.
  • Don’t tax the introvert advantage. Some of the best critical thinking will come from the introverts on your team. To get the most from them, don’t overtax them with all-day meetings or expect them to be at their best in environments with high activity levels, interrupts and lots of background noise. High sensory activity may stimulate an extrovert to work harder, but usually has the opposite effect on an introvert, leaving them more fatigued than fruitful. Introverts need time to recharge from highly stimulating environments. As a leader, consider gathering input across multiple shorter meetings and give opportunity for everyone to think more slowly about important decisions.
  • Don’t use express check-in with an introvert. As a leader, it’s important to keep a strong relational connection with your team. Ask an extrovert, “How are you doing?” and they’ll either respond in kind (“Fine. You?”) or tell you what’s presently on their mind. Remember, extroverts are fast flowing rivers. Ask an introvert the same question, however, and they may ponder what you meant by it. You might erroneously conclude from their lack of response that they’re trying to be evasive. Instead, they’re thinking “Is this a genuine question? Do you have something specific in mind? If so, what, and how deep should I go? And if I open up, are you going to take time to listen?” Introverts won’t naturally put themselves out there. They know from experience not to cast their pearls before swine. So, to foster good rapport and connection, good leaders go fishing in the introvert pond with more deliberate questions: “What are some of the things you’ve been pondering this week?” or “What did you think about (situation)?” Asked in a setting conducive to a thoughtful response will earn their respect and improve communication on your team.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from working with introverts?

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2 thoughts on “What I learned about leadership from an introvert

  1. First of all that picture looks like the dock I took out trying to learn how to wake-board. You have the introvert down. Good advice. I actually score far into introvert territory but not the shy side of the scale as some might think. being with large groups of people take energy away and time alone rebuilds my energy.

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