How to Appreciate and Develop 'Quiet' Leadership

By Stephenie Overman Jun 1, 2017

PHOENIX—Is the ideal leader bold, alpha and gregarious? "We live in a culture that tells us the answer is decidedly, 'Yes,'" Susan Cain told the opening session of the WorkHuman 2017 conference sponsored by Globoforce, an employee engagement and recognition software company.

Cain, co-founder of the Quiet Leadership Institute, called on HR professionals to expand the model of what leadership looks like.

While people tend to think of the lone extroverted leader who saves the day, companies are better served by "the yin and yang" of introverted and extroverted leaders who complement and balance each other, said Cain, author of the bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Broadway Books 2013).

Introverted leaders may seem unassuming and soft spoken but "introverts are so into what they're doing. People can feel when a leader is there because they have no choice" but to follow their passion.

Since introverts make up one third to half of the population, companies need to better understand them as employees and foster an environment that helps them be most productive, Cain said. She described introverts as people who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who create but prefer not to pitch their own ideas; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams.

She urged her audience members to groom "unlikely" leaders in their organizations. "Think about someone who is really talented, but who is not thought of as a natural leader. That person might be you. Who can you make that commitment to? How can you help them get there by drawing on the strengths they have?"

She encouraged people to take the Quiet Revolution personality test to determine where they fit on the introvert/extrovert spectrum and to learn ways to develop their strengths.

"We are all wired differently," she said. With better self awareness of your strengths and motivations, "you can try to toggle your environment…to give yourself maximum energy."

A self-described introvert, Cain said early in life she "acquired the habit of being someone I was not….We all have to stretch outside our comfort zone, but it's a big mistake to turn yourself inside out and try to be someone else." Introverts should learn to push beyond their natural boundaries not routinely, but when it really matters.

"The key is to figure out what really matters to you and what is in the service of those core projects. After you've done that, you get to come back and be yourself."

Finding better ways to balance the needs of introverts and extroverts requires change on the part of organizations and individuals, she noted, saying, companies put too much emphasis on meetings, which play far more to extroverts' strengths than to introverts'.

When meetings must be held, "extroverts—curb  your enthusiasm a little," she advised. Do more to engage introverts one on one

Cain urged introverts to think ahead of time about what points they want to make in a meeting and to speak up. "[Introverts—] don't curb your enthusiasm. Give yourself a push to outwardly show it."

When networking, introverts shouldn't focus on the overall number of people they meet but on finding "kindred spirits. You don't need that many of them to declare a conference like this a success."

Finally: "Know what's in your suitcase: what are the things that matter so much to you that you carry them around everywhere you go? For extroverts, it's natural to take them it out and share them," she said. "For the introverts it's probably more natural to guard them carefully. But, every so often, take them out. The world needs the things you carry."

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. 

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