A RECURRING NIGHTMARE
It was 2014. I was standing in the gym of the school for which I was a co-founder. I was a member of the leadership team and was literally standing on the sidelines as our students, teachers and staff chanted, cheered, and celebrated as our school principal led what we call Community Meeting.
Imagine a high school pep rally, but for 5-10-year old’s and led by one enthusiastic person and not cheerleaders, that’s Community Meeting. The school principal leads the weekly celebration for the entire student body (around 550 children), staff, parents and community members. The purpose of the weekly “meeting” is to build community, celebrate student achievements, and have fun.
Our principal was moving through the center of the gym, chanting, calling on students and staff to join in, and truly seeming like this was the happiest part of her week. It was in these moments that I thought, “That job is just not for me.” Don’t get me wrong. I loved Community Meeting. It was joyful, fun, and affirming to students. I just didn’t want to be the one in the center of the gym leading it. That idea terrified me.
I’M OK JUST BEING WHO I AM
I’m an introvert.
In general, I prefer to work hard behind the scenes and stay out of the spotlight. I gain energy through time alone or with just a close friend or two. Even writing this post is a bit too personal for comfort...too much of myself feels exposed. To share another example of how my introverted nature manifests, and where I find joy, I’ll share an example from my senior year of high school. I was student council president and leading a large fundraising event at my school. I much preferred my behind-the-scenes work of directing the fundraiser, providing direction to the stage manager, lighting crew, and executing on our plan overall through walkie talkie communication with my team, rather than addressing the massive crowd. When I was called on stage to be recognized for my work on the event, I got it over with as quickly as I could. I waved, thanked everyone for coming, and returned backstage where it was safe and comfortable.
So, why do these stories matter? They matter because I’ve learned how to train myself to lead out loud and out front when I need to and maximize my introverted skills the remainder of the time. I’ve learned to believe and capitalize on my introversions and am now a school principal myself. I have the role that I once never wanted because, in a way, I didn’t think it “fit” my personality. And, it’s not surprising that I believed this. There is a commonly believed misinformed assumption that extroverts are stronger leaders-- that you have to be extroverted, charismatic, etc., to be an effective leader, who has the power to influence others. In fact, extroverts often rise much quicker to leadership roles because of the stereotype that characteristics such as charisma and outspokenness make better leaders. Let me be clear, there are many extremely successful extroverted leaders. However, introverts actually possess exceptionally strong leadership skills as well, and often bring those essential leadership qualities and skills to an organization that extroverts don’t--which is what I want to share with you today.
TO ALL OF MY FELLOW INTROVERTS
Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too [insert “quiet” or equivalent] to lead.
As a leader, you do need to make decisions, navigate complex situations, and build strong relationships to be effective--you don’t need to be the life of the party. However, there are times you have to extend yourself beyond your comfort zone--but you can do that too. Here are the skills, directly related to my introversion, that I focus on in my role which allow me to lead successfully.
If you are an introvert reading this, consider these for yourself. If you are a leader or colleague of an introvert, help them by sharing this!
★ LISTEN. It’s one of our greatest strengths, fellow introvert, and it comes naturally to us! When someone has a problem--you listen. When someone has an opinion--you listen. Leaders who listen, and prioritize listening, gain ideas and perspectives different from their own. This allows them to reach more sound decisions. This skill also helps to develop strong relationships, because everyone wants a boss, partner or colleague who hears them.
★ SCHEDULE ONE-ON-ONE MEETINGS. Introverts thrive one on one and we prefer it, too! Lean into this and schedule as many one-on-one meetings as you can. Let your team see who you are in these situations and get to know them as well. Introverts build strong and meaningful relationships and often show their authentic selves one-on-one better than in larger group meetings.
★ PREPARE, PRACTICE, PERFORM. If I could give just one piece of advice for how to thrive during the “big moments” that take all of the energy out of an introvert, it would be this. While they still drain all of my energy, I can step into situations with confidence that demand extroversion. I can lead Community Meetings, speak at large events, and step into any spotlight, because I have written out every minute and I have practiced and then practiced some more. It’s all in the behind the scenes. Most fear of public speaking comes from unpreparedness. Refuse to let that happen. Also, do yourself a favor and be intentional about the times when you are “on stage.” If you can help it, spread these moments out so you have time to refuel.
★ EMPLOY TRANSPARENT AND FREQUENT COMMUNICATION. Because I’m not a natural social butterfly or “talker” (although I can be with the people I’m closest to), I intentionally schedule frequent huddles and meetings with my team in order to share thoughts, develop processes, and establish clear paths to decision making. Having this on my calendar ensures we have strong plans, clear roles, and update each other on obstacles along the way which we may need to solve together. My communication is intentional, and process driven, and my calendar reflects this need.
★ LEVERAGE YOUR NATURAL STRENGTHS. Did you know that it’s easier for introverts to tune out distractions more easily? Because introverts have this skill, and draw energy from within, we tend to more easily and effectively stay calm and collected in high stress and unpredictable situations. What brings a team a sense of confidence? That you can keep your cool in any situation. Also, introverts generally feel rewarded through self-satisfaction and a job well done, rather than recognition. We gain energy and satisfaction through a team that produces great work and outcomes. So, let your work speak for itself.
Push past the stereotype of who you might imagine when you think of a “leader.” Like all stereotypes, it’s harmful to put yourself in a category that limits your effectiveness or confidence. Also, because we all fall on a spectrum of introversion/extroversion, not all introverts are the same. Know your strengths, understand and utilize them, and then plan and practice for the skills that push you to your limits of comfort and energy. Introverts make amazing leaders. Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, and even Barack Obama are all said to be introverts. I believe in you fellow introverts, and you should too!
Shine on-- you know, in your own quiet and powerful way.
Born and raised in a small Minnesotan town, Cetera graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN with a BA in English Literature. She moved to St. Louis in 2009 to teach high school english in St. Louis, and graduated from The University of Missouri--St. Louis (M.Ed) in 2011. She is in her 5th year as an elementary school principal and is passionate about leading for educational equity and ensuring all children have life choices.
Cetera’s favorite quote is from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” She spends her free time listening to podcasts, walking, actively avoiding any strenuous exercise (especially group workout classes), ordering takeout, hanging out with her husband, and spending time with her two cats--Tiny and Violet Pearl.