Someone jokingly said to me recently: “I’ve always thought there are two kinds of people in this world; extroverts and those who want to be.” Predictably, it was an extrovert who made the quip. However, this is not far from another common myth, namely that leaders need to be extroverts.
After all, can you imagine someone curled up in the corner with a blanket and a book really leading the charge to take a hill? Can you see a shy, soft-spoken person making the tough and aggressive calls demanded of a CEO? Is the shrinking violet who hardly ever speaks up in a group likely to inspire the group to change? Can the recluse lead a church to growth and greatness?
The stereotypes abound … and they are mostly wrong.
Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) writes that 30-50% of the people around us are introverts … and this does not predestine them to be followers. Chances are high, if you are reading this, that you fit that category, too. Yet, our “culture of personality” has touted extroversion as the first fundamental of leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As Cain notes, shyness is fear of social rejection. It is not the same as introversion. Similarly, the gentle-speaking individual (think Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, and even Jesus) is not necessarily toothless or fearful. Thoughtful words can actually make for the most powerful leadership!
Cain observes that introversion and extroversion are better understood in terms of stimulation. How much external and social stimulation do you need to feel comfortable? Extroverts thrive on lots of stimulation (noise, activity, busyness, light … and people). Introverts feel more comfortable and energized by low-stimulant environments. This obviously has nothing to do with leadership capacity. Indeed, introverts can easily “play the role” of leadership as needed by the situation. However, they don’t need leadership to fuel them as some other folk might.
Are you an introvert? Embrace leadership, knowing that you bring to it deep reflection, analytical ability, and the glorious joy of your own company. Are you an extrovert? Don’t assume that leadership is your inherent mantle to wear. Rather, acknowledge that your team is likely to be 30-50% introverts (even higher in some professions like higher education). Do not run over them, around them, or through them. Work with them. Capitalize on their capacity to read people, read a room, and think deeply and richly.
Contrary to the cultural norms we have absorbed, leadership is not restricted by personality type. The quiet girl or boy has as much potential to grow into transformational leadership as the cheerleaders and quarterbacks of this world. It may take a little longer to emerge (given our cultural biases and systems), but “producing change and building lives through authenticity, inspiration, empathy, and innovation” is not determined by innate temperament.
Your introverted child, well-supported and affirmed, could be the next transformational leader for the church or society. So could you.
David Timms is Dean of the School of Christian Leadership at William Jessup University and author of Shape Your World: Transformational Leadership for Everyday Life (2018).