How Do Introverts Learn to Lead?
Are leaders born or can leadership be learned? This is an age old question and one that Sarah Wilson is exploring as part of her MBA research. Sarah, who lives in the UK, found my book The Dynamic Introvert online and contacted me to see if I would be interested in participating in her research.
In 2012 when I began exploring the topic of leadership there wasn’t a lot research specifically devoted to introverted leaders. At that time author Jennifer Kahnweiler had published her book The Introverted Leader and authors and researchers Adam Grant, Francesca Gino and David Hofmann had published their research into the strengths of introverted leaders.
Since then a handful of research projects have been written up in academic journals but none, as far as I know, have looked specifically at the question of how introverts learn to lead.
Sarah is interested in the “lived experiences” of introverts and so she asked me to complete a timeline identifying the people and events that had the greatest influence on my career.
And as I completed the timeline and looked back on my career there were a number of things that jumped out at me:
- I had a lot of really great mentors. Very early on in my career there were senior leaders who recognized the potential in me and pushed me to step into leadership positions that I wouldn’t have considered if it wasn’t for their support.
- I was a “lifelong learner” and took advantage of every opportunity to develop myself as a person and as a leader. Sometimes the courses were provided by my employers but more often than not I paid for them out of my own pocket because I recognized the need to develop my leadership skills.
- Teaching and helping others was also important to me and I took every opportunity I could to mentor and coach my colleagues as well as students and others who were interested in learning with me.
So, how did I learn to lead? Like most of us I learned through a combination of experience and formal education.
One of the things that stood out for me as I worked on my timeline was this. I am a humble, quiet leader and I’m happy to develop and promote others. And the fact that I was an introvert didn’t prevent others from noticing my strengths and seeing the potential in me.
Over the years I was offered a number of key leadership positions including social work leader and co-leader of a geriatric medical clinic.
Of course there were challenges along the way as well. Challenges that I believe other introverts face:
- I probably spent too much time spent thinking on my own when it may have been more beneficial to talk things through with a colleague or just move into action.
- I didn’t find my “voice” until I was in my 50’s and I credit Toastmasters for that. Up until then I was invisible in a lot of groups and despite having great ideas I didn’t always get them across to the people who could have helped me to develop and implement them.
I asked Sarah why she had decided to focus on how introverts learn to lead for her research project.
This is what she said, “I chose the subject as after reading Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet I was inspired to research and learn more about how someone becomes a leader if they are an introvert. My job role currently involves supporting the leadership team in local government and I found it interesting that mostly extroverts are appointed into senior leadership positions. “
So, as we come to the end of 2017 I’d like you to reflect on how far introverts have come since Susan Cain’s 2012 blockbuster book opened the world’s eyes to the challenges that many introverts face.
And as we welcome 2018 you might want to identify your own leadership development goals or if you are in a leadership position consider how you might mentor or coach an introvert who shows potential and would appreciate you help.
Happy New Year! All the best for 2018!