How we work: Sarai on leading as an introvert
I’ve bought into a lot of wrongheaded ideas over the course of my life.
As a kid, I bought into the idea that you could not be creative and also interested in math or science. My schools told me you were one or the other: left brain or right brain.
As a teenager, I bought into the idea (though I might not have admitted it at the time) that having a boyfriend was the true marker of a girl’s worth and desirability.
As an adult, I bought into the idea that you cannot be a leader and an introvert. I believed I needed to change my personality, or let someone else take charge.
I am an introvert. That word is incredibly charged for me, because for most of my life it’s something I’ve been ashamed of, something I thought was wrong with me.
Since I was a little girl, I’ve craved time alone with nothing more than my thoughts and imagination. Even though I loved my friends and enjoyed playing with other kids, I equally loved spending time by myself making flower crowns or playing with dolls and not speaking to anyone for hours.
Undoubtedly, I think my parents and adults must have wondered what was wrong with me. As a grown person, I get the feeling people still do.
If you’re an introvert, you probably know what I’m talking about. No matter how relaxed and happy you feel at a party, there’s always some smiling, friendly stranger coming up to you and asking why you’re not talking enough, causing you to wonder if there really is something wrong with the way you are.
The book Quiet by Susan Cain truly opened my eyes to what it means to be an introvert. In that book, the author points out that a big difference between extroverts and introverts is that extroverts feel energized by being around people. Introverts need considerable downtime to be alone with their thoughts and “recover” from the draining effect of social interaction.
When I read that book, I felt I finally understood something about my personality that was a little fuzzy before. I thought everyone felt depleted by social interaction, but some people just got over it a lot better than me. I was just inadequate.
It turns out, not only are a huge number of people built this way, but it has a lot of advantages. Introverts tend to be really good at processing information, at thinking things through, at writing. They value deep relationships over networking. They listen more than they talk.
The best leaders I’ve worked with trust their team. They don’t tell you what to do, but instead ask genuinely useful questions. They solve problems, they help when they’re needed, they’re collaborative, and they don’t let their egos eclipse their mission. They bring out your creativity instead of pretending they know it all. This is the sort of person I try to be.
This is not the sort of leader you see in the media. Yet, there seems to be evidence that many of the best leaders have traits that might be considered introverted.
In his ground breaking research on successful CEOs, Jim Collins found that the most successful leaders – those responsible for huge sustained performance improvements in their organization – were not the brash larger-than-life public figures that we hear so much about.
Instead, they were people that coupled a soft-spoken, modest demeanor with an incredibly strong will. They’re hard working, steel-willed, energetic, and yet totally unassuming. They are not necessarily what you’d expect.
Unfortunately, I think it’s much more difficult for women with this sort of personality to rise through the ranks in the corporate world. It’s hard to get recognition as a woman in many organizations, and women are forced to walk an extremely fine line and have a very specific personality to get ahead in most companies. Assertive, but not too assertive. Opinionated, but not too opinionated. Loud, but not too loud.
In other words, women are judged as much for their personality – or even their manner of speaking – as they are for their ideas.
But when you start your own company, you create the culture. You can value the traits of all different kinds of people, and you can make a space for people not to be punished because they aren’t the loudest in the room. Because I am certainly not the loudest person in the room, pretty much ever.
Perhaps if we had more female leaders in business, this kind of inclusiveness would be commonplace. Not because women are more likely to be introverts (I have no idea if that’s true), but because they wouldn’t be punished for it.
Then maybe the next time a study like Jim Collins’ finds that the best leaders are big thinkers rather than big personalities, perhaps just one of those brilliant, strong, gentle leaders will be a woman.