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Think Only Extroverts Can Lead? Here Are 5 Reasons to Think Again

Woman watching sunset alone

If anyone has ever hinted that you need to be an extrovert to be a successful leader, here’s your one-word response: Oprah.

As Susan Cain wrote in her 2012 bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, there are many misunderstandings about the nature—and skills—of introverts. But over the past decade, that has been changing. 

Here are five things people are now recognizing about introversion in the workplace and beyond, according to Jennifer Kahnweiler, a Conferences for Women speaker and author of The Introverted Leader, Quiet Influence, and The Genius of Opposites:

  1. Introversion and extroversion appear on a spectrum. “It used to be you’re an introvert, or you’re an extrovert. Many people now identify with the term ‘ambivert,’ where you go back and forth. The cool news is that we now know that introversion and extroversion are within each of us.” The point, she adds, is not to focus on the label but to figure out which behavior serves you best.
  2. The need for quiet time is a key differentiator. “An extrovert will say, ‘Quiet time is kind of nice. I like going to yoga, I like meditating. It calms me down.’ An introvert will say, ‘It’s non-negotiable. I must decompress.’” Research is also showing that quiet time fuels innovation and creativity. “When we get away from it all, then we go back to work, we’re better,” says Kahnweiler.
  3. Introverts are intentional—and prepared. “What I found when I interviewed introverted leaders in all sectors is that they consistently used a process. They thought about it. They didn’t just wing it. They thought about how they communicated with their team, how they led, and not just about the task.
    Introverts prepare, it seems, in every kind of a challenge that they’re faced with.”
  4. More people are saying they’re introverted. “I remember being interviewed by a Wall Street Journal reporter around 2011, and she said, ‘I need to get a real, live C-level introverted leader, and nobody will talk on the record.’ That has shifted tremendously. People like Doug Conan at Campbell Soup, and many others, are talking about it. Who knew Oprah was an introvert?”
  5. Workplaces have work to do to make room for all personality types. “We have open space offices. We have hiring, and recruiting, and retention, and promotion practices that are still very much aligned with the extroverted temperament. And, we have meetings that are still very much about, ‘You didn’t talk enough at that meeting. I didn’t hear you speaking.’ We still have work to do on best practices for really embracing introversion in the workplace.”           

Kahnweiler spoke at the 2019 Watermark Conference for Women with panelists Morra Aarons-Mele, founder, Women Online and The Mission List, and author, Hiding in the Bathroom; and Jess Lee, early investing partner, Sequoia, and former CEO, Polyvore. You can listen to the entire session here.

More from the September 2019 Newsletter

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