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Embracing Introversion

Some introverted leaders reported struggling with their self image early in their careers. For some it took a while to realise that they needed to use their introvert strengths

  • successful introverted leaders learn to focus on leading as an introvert rather than trying to be an extrovert

  • they can begin to this by developing an understanding of introversion, perhaps through taking MBTI tests and, importantly, learning what the outcomes mean

  • understanding introversion and working with it, rather than against it, can itself improve introverted leaders’ self-confidence

  • talking about introversion with colleagues which builds understanding and contributes to better working relationships

  • the introverted leaders we spoke to were perhaps their most expressive on the need to develop an understanding of introversion. Below you can read what they had to say.

Embracing Introversion

  • “For the first ten to fifteen years of my career I coped. I assumed that people were the same and used role models who tended to be extroverted... I was already in my mid-thirties when I completed the MBTI for the first time and being able to name, understand, talk about and enjoy being an ‘I’ was rewarding and liberating. Subsequently I use ‘role’ as the way of dealing with situations where I did not have a natural affinity... Energy is perhaps the thing that needs handling most actively on a day-to-day basis. Knowing that I can do the social skill number and that it will exhaust me, and being prepared for that, is important.”

  • “The big thing is self confidence. I tend to assume that everyone has got it and I haven’t.”

  • “I think I was cruising partly because of my introversion, I find it difficult to influence so I thought leadership and management were difficult so I didn’t do it. The real issue was understanding how to lead as an introvert.”

  • “I think the important thing to remember as someone once said to me is 'you may be right handed but you also use your left hand.'”

  • “When I did the MBTI I was disappointed to learn that I was an introvert because I had an attitude that introversion was not so good as extroversion.”

  • “Someone said to me “It’s like being left handed. It’s okay to be left handed but you need to know how to use scissors and actually it’s better to get left handed scissors.”

  • “Because I only recently realised that I am an introvert, I've spent most of my career so far with a clouded understanding of what is the 'real' me. Sometimes I've had enough energy to cover up my natural introversion with extrovert-type behaviour - but when that energy burns up I've then tended to withdraw from things that I've started. I think that my apparent dual-personality in this respect has been quite confusing to other people as well, so that they never quite know where to place me - and perhaps have not trusted me as much as they might. Now that I know and understand my preferences, I feel that I am behaving much more consistently and am perceived as more trustworthy as a result.”

  • “I think I spent a lot of time and energy earlier in my career thinking about how I could be more extrovert (although I may not have expressed it in that way).”

  • “I did the MBTI... and I came out as a clear introvert. I have never consciously thought about it but I realise that people expected me to be an extrovert leader, to have a lot of presence and to run large groups. I don’t find this easy or natural, so understanding my introvert preference really helped me understand why I found some things so extremely difficult. I have always admired extroverts, I thought I had to be like them to be more effective. Knowing that I was the introvert and that I can be different gave me a degree of quiet confidence and helped me frame myself in a way I hadn’t before. Being who I am is the most effective way to be – authenticity is important. Ultimately that makes me a better leader.”

  • “Overall I think my introversion may have affected my earlier career (in my twenties/early thirties), as it probably contributed to lower levels of confidence and issues around profile & visibility. However, in the last ten years I would feel my introversion has not been an obstacle, but has actually contributed to my strengths as a leader. Some people may see me as a bit remote, but I develop strong working relationships with those I work with closely.”

  • “The first time I did MBTI I didn’t get it, the facilitator just told me what’s in the book. The second time, the facilitator really brought it alive for me and worked out how I exhibited the behaviours at work and I absolutely got it then – so I think you need a really good feedback facilitator, one who will challenge you and give you some examples of when that might have been true. I spent a couple of hours with the second one and it became real.”

  • “I am now much better aware of how unsettling pauses and long periods of silence are for those around me, especially after they have asked questions and of how and why I find some meetings, especially those with an extrovert bias or extrovert members, so stressful both at work and socially. The recent better insight into this introversion has made significant improvements to my energy levels and ability to boost these whilst also limiting situations which seem to drain my energy... I now feel very positive about introverted leaders as long as they have good insight into their personal characteristics and importantly, good countering strategies.”

  • “When both myself and my boss/Chair have used Myers Briggs to look at our own behaviours we were able to understand our own preferences, and accommodate around them. For example, my last Chair understood and gave me space to 'gather myself' before we did big public events.”

  • “I have only quite recently in my career (last three years) become aware of my introversion in a conscious manner. This is a period when I have undergone substantial leadership development and have really developed 'ambition' to lead. During this period, at least earlier in it, there is no question that my introversion impacted on my personal confidence.”

  • “I have come to accept who I am and approach life accordingly, we need to accommodate people differences.”

  • “I don't think my introversion has had an effect on the progress of my career, rather on the way I have managed different roles. It differentiates the type of leader you are, but doesn't of itself reduce the impact. In many ways, sometimes 'E' leaders are overexposed and as a result their currency can be devalued. 'I' leaders can be more in touch with what is 'really' happening in terms of the dynamics of their own organisations The positives of introverted leaders can be welcomed by other leaders, peers and direct reports. It offers a greater reflective capacity, can be less challenging to an outwardly 'E' leader, and the skilful leader will recognise that a team of 'E' personalities can be a battleground of egos and noise.”

  • “I think doing the MBTI has helped. It has made me more tolerant and open to be how I am. It has helped me to stop worrying about only having a few close friendships.”

  • "I tended to be driven, when I was younger, to make up for not being an obviously 'up front' leader, but I got to mid fifties and felt I had found ways of managing my introverted tendencies and 'matured' into my leadership style in a way I felt comfortable with.”

  • “Above all, to recognise that I am more I than E, and not try to fight it - in a sense to use it as a strength, recognising that I am not going to change my personality; but also to try and compensate somewhat in my behaviour where this is necessary.”

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