When I say the word “leader”, what or who do you picture? Is it someone in a suit, speaking behind a lectern? A teacher at the front of the room? Mel Gibson in Braveheart? We usually associate leadership with certain characteristics– a dominant personality, a booming voice, a charisma and charm. But are any of these things really necessary to lead? Because we’ve typically seen leadership look a certain way, does that mean it’s the only way it can be done?
Abraham Lincoln said that it is “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” What if there’s a secret strength in being the quieter one in a conversation? What does it look like for someone more prone to listening than speaking to steer a team?
I’ve been leading Prolific’s San Francisco office for the last year, and would classify myself as an introvert. I’m not a natural public speaker, I don’t seek the spotlight, and I tend to weigh my words before I join a conversation. But despite some dissonance between my natural characteristics and the features most of us associate with leadership, our teams are thriving. I’ve learned a lot about leading while listening, and whether you’re an introvert like me, or looking to implement new styles of leadership in your teams, here are some things I’ve found have helped me in my journey to leading quietly.
Take stock of your strengths instead of comparing yourself to others
If you’re an introvert, there are probably some personality traits that you think don’t serve you very well at work. You may even be trying to overcome some of these things. But what if you saw them as skills to be honed instead? I may not be a booming extrovert, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have something collaborative to bring to the table.
As an introvert, I’m never going to be seeking the spotlight. So when I speak, my words are deliberate. I’m not interested in wasting anyone’s time and talking just to hear myself to talk. There is an intention behind what I say. My team can count on me, and know that when I say something, I mean it.
I also know that one of my greatest strengths is being able to stay calm and solutions-oriented instead of reacting immediately, outwardly to a problem. That’s served me really well in teams. No one needs a leader who freaks out or makes an impulsive, bad call.
Build organic relationships
Admittedly, this is not the most natural thing for an introvert to want to do. I’m certainly not anti-social, but most of the time I’d rather skip the networking event and go home and finally crack open the copy of “Quiet” that’s been sitting on my nightstand.
Introverts often feel pressure to develop a huge relational network, or we compare ourselves to extroverts who seem to have wide swaths of connections. We all know that relationships are the building blocks of teams and businesses, but there’s a way to go about making them that feels natural and authentic to someone like me.
Setting a goal to get to know people you work with – whether they’re vendors, partners, or clients – will help you work more collaboratively and find solutions. Put yourself in spaces with like-minded people – in co-working spaces like The Wing or WeWork. Find others that you enjoy working with and spend focused time getting to know them on a deeper level.
Pushing yourself a bit to turn contacts and teammates into relationships will make your time together less taxing and more enjoyable, too.
Look for others like you
I like having a diverse team. I want a range of skills and personalities working together to produce beautiful and exciting things. And because of that– and because I know that personalities like mine are often overlooked and untapped– I keep an eye out for fellow introverts who may flourish in a leadership role.
The natural tendency may be to nominate the person loudest on the conference call to head up the new project. But what about the person taking notes, who thoughtfully and thoroughly answered that question from the CEO? What about the person who’s been an assistant for a really long time? Or the one on the team everyone can rely on?
Leadership doesn’t always need to be loud. What if being a great leader meant being reliable and trustworthy– someone with vision that a team could trust with the practical things too?
That’s the kind of leader I want to be.