Can I Be a True Leader?

Avoiding Judgments as an Introvert Leader

By Dr. Francis Eberle

This past year three coaching clients taught me to remember that this is a complex question.  All of them were already in substantial leadership roles but were questioning whether others perceived them to be leaders, including their supervisors. For me there was no question; it was obvious that they were true leaders. For them it was a different story.

Their confidence in their ability to lead was waning and causing them stress. The company was growing and they wondered if they would fit in the new model. Each of them had a unique personality with firm ideas about their leadership, while exhibiting a more quiet, thoughtful and detailed approach to their work. Their empathy and attention to others was intense, but this intention was not reflected in the amount time they spent with their reports. 

They had also recently taken a psychological assessment which revealed a profile they feared was going to be perceived by their supervisors as not having true “leadership characteristics.” Each of them displayed some of the culturally dreaded “introverted” tendencies. This was when I met them as their coach.

Despite the attention that introversion has received over the past several years, there is still a preference in the West toward extroverted leaders. More recent research illustrates that introversion is not a handicap but even can be a plus in leadership roles. Andy Johnson’s book, Introverted Revolution: Leading Authentically in a World That Says You Can’t documents this fact well. 

All leaders at some time question their decisions, whether an introvert or an extrovert. This is why many leaders and experts say it takes courage to be a leader. As Herminia Ibarra says in The Authenticity Paradox article from The Harvard Business Review (2015), “courage by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.” 

Being inauthentic is hard for everyone, particularly people with introverted tendencies.  They can often question their decisions as they think about all the implications of those decisions. This reflective stance can cause them to also take criticism personally, particularly when they do things that are unfamiliar or uncharacteristic to them. 

When I coached these three leaders, we discussed the psychological assessment, their strengths, challenges, motivators and competencies. We spent time on how their clarity and accuracy can be a plus. At the same time, these tendencies can sometimes be a challenge for their direct reports, so we discussed what they could each do to bridge that gap. 

Interestingly, each leader hadn’t been meeting regularly with their reports but instead emailed or held quick, informational one-on-ones. Each understood the importance of meetings for making personal connections, so we worked on a plan for how they could meet regularly with their staff. We focused on this for several months, as finding time to host meetings was difficult. Once meetings became more regular, each found they had more time to do their own work because of the shift in responsibilities and accountability that happened during those meetings. 

They began to receive positive feedback from their direct reports, encouraging them to continue the meetings. They developed several systems to help keep track of their to do lists and to prioritize items. Their performance and connection to their people improved, even while taking on some new projects. They delegated tasks, allowing them to focus on the bigger picture and to leave the office most days before 6 p.m. Ultimately, their mind set shifted to being more confident with their leadership abilities.

These three talented and dedicated professionals reminded me that we make judgements about people, and sometimes about ourselves, before we fully understand them and their abilities. We sometimes use or accept the use of labels to pigeonhole people when much greater caution is needed. 

Recently each leader told me that they had received a promotion or opportunity to take on new responsibilities. They did not necessarily seek out this kind of expanded leadership responsibility, but liked the challenge and the feeling of being valued. I valued the interactions I had with them, learned much about their work and I am pleased they are succeeding after they overcame personal and cultural obstacles, and now they are surer about what a true leader really is. 

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