Introverts in power: How to be a successful leader as an introvert

Sept 16, 2022 - Izaskun Olarreaga

"I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people." Mahatma Gandhi.

The rottweiler school of management has long been relegated to history. However, there is a lingering view that the most successful business leaders are tangibly strong, confident and highly articulate.

Does that mean introverts can't be powerful and effective in business?

An introvert is someone whose personality is characterised by inward reflection, a love of solitude and a reserved attitude to engaging with large groups (or even small ones).

That may sound like a person ill-fitted to carry a responsible role in the pressurised world of modern business. In fact, research has shown that around half of highly respected executives describe themselves as introverted. There are also arguments that suggest introverts make the best leaders and innovators.

Well-known introverts include the most successful scientist in history - Albert Einstein. Examples of business introverts include Bill Gates. He is a Harvard drop-out who excelled thanks to intellect, rather than his social skills.

So, does that mean you have to be a genius to have power as an introvert?

In this article, we demonstrate the 'powers' you have as an introverted person and show how to be a successful business leader by enhancing those characteristics.

Play to your strengths

"Introverts dislike small talk, but we are fluent in the language of ideas and dreams." Michaela Chung.

This really sums up how to be effective in business, whatever your personality. There is nothing to stop anyone from becoming an innovator, founder, leader or technical master if they have the determination to succeed and work hard to advance their most appropriate skills.

For introverts who want to get ahead in business, this means focusing on all those abilities that don't rely on being comfortable in large gatherings or in front of the media, for example. Instead, you can work on your technical knowledge, capabilities as a calm mentor and value as a reasoned and reliable decision maker.

In effect, you are making a virtue of your introvert tendencies, as soon as you realise that you will never be a gifted or prolific networker.

You still need to work on your communication skills to be effective in business, even if you are primarily going to be collaborating with and informing individuals or small groups. (More on this later.) However, it is amazing how introverts can become animated and articulate when talking about something they are passionate about, and enthusiastically share their knowledge.

So much so that self-professed introvert and author Simon Sinek has become a motivational speaker due to his burning drive to inspire fellow introverts! He argues (see video below) that what you need to leverage your quieter traits is an undying belief in your cause and a willingness to devote everything to that.

Emotional intelligence and empathy

Emotional intelligence is a central principle of modern leadership. It could be argued that people who invest more time in contemplation and consideration – and less in extensive interaction and conversation – are well placed to understand themselves and other people better.

That could mean taking more time to fully appreciate your own personal challenges, strengths and weaknesses. As well as using acute observation and careful listening to better understand what makes others 'tick'.

There is also a strong emphasis on empathy in business these days. That requires you to take a holistic approach to managing workforces and supporting team dynamics. Including avoiding 'blame and shame' and putting greater value on appreciation and motivation.

This is particularly vital at times of change. Being aware of (and responding to) the needs of others is considered to be the best way to keep everyone focused on solutions.

An emotionally intelligent introvert may well, therefore, be in a great position to get the best out of other people, without using motivational speeches and being highly visible at all times. Instead, they may use individualised tools and approaches to empower your peers and teams in a measured and discrete way.

"To lead people, walk beside them. As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'" Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher.

Listening skills and being an introvert in power

"Quiet people have the loudest minds." Stephen Hawking.

Great leaders are also generally the best communicators. We have already mentioned that even introverted personalities benefit considerably from finding ways to enhance their communication skills.

However, introverts may find one vital communication ability easier than extroverts – constructive listening. This involves not just giving people time and opportunity to give you their ideas, issues and suggestions. It also means actively encouraging this process, by asking the right questions and demonstrating a willingness to use the information you receive.

Listening skills and being an introvert in power

Someone who is an extrovert - quick to speak, animated and always compelling in their use of language - can sometimes command the lion's share of meetings and digital collaborations too.

However, the quietest person in a room (or online) may prove to be the most effective team member over time. They could be using their presence to sift through what everyone else is saying, to formulate solutions. Or even using their emotional intelligence to support colleagues effectively and constantly during the interaction.

"Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand." – Gen. Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State.

The importance of trust in business

Trust is another attribute of business management that's vital worldwide. This links with the two pillars of establishing good business relationships - competence and warmth.

There is an argument that gregarious and prolific networkers are at risk of skewing their persona towards competence, without showing enough warmth. Or, they can generate a degree of concern that their confidence and charism are compensating for a lack of ability.

It could even be said that quieter and more focused business leaders appear more authentic and down-to-earth, and therefore more trustworthy.

This view may be influenced by where you are in the world, as different global cultures rank personality traits in their own way. For example, according to one worldwide recruitment organisation, Asian business leaders place a high value on patience, hard work and agility, rather than impressive displays of prowess.

As one Indian executive put it: "If I had to put a man on Mars in five years, I would probably ask the West to do it. But if I had to make sure the man survives on Mars, I would look to the East."

Ways introverts can communication effectively

Introverts tend to be more measured and deliberate when they do choose to speak out – verbally or in writing. They may be the decision makers who stay calmest under intense pressure too, presenting their suggestions in a slow, well-reasoned manner.

Not wanting to be overstimulated - and regularly in crowded or overwhelming situations - does not mean you can't present brilliantly to a small group of people about a topic you fully understand. You can be assertive, clear and bold in some meetings and still be an introvert.

What can help with this, is a presentation skills course that's ideally suited to introverts. One that emphasises the importance of planning, and effective public speaking through a focus on clear goals and audience appreciation.

Of course, a modern development that has equalled the playing field for people with quieter personalities in the business world is digital communications. That has not completely replaced the need to fine-tune presentation skills, but online communications training can enable you to make the best use of technology to be powerful as an introvert.

What about learning how to cope with the occasions when you must challenge yourself to come out of your comfort zone and speak up?

Pushing yourself to engage in overwhelming situations can necessitate more 'recharge time' for introverts in business. That can help you achieve balance and recover from times when you need to be socially forceful.

Also, you can be gradual and mindful in building meaningful business contacts if you find the process uncomfortable. Try to use environments and tools that put you at ease. Such as scheduling an important meeting over coffee, according to Rick Turoczy's TED Talk video 'An introvert's guide to networking'.

The best leaders - introverts v extroverts

"Lighthouses don't go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining." Anne Lamott

There is a view that the best business leaders can only be found in times of crisis and change. The way you handle critical situations, and unify and motivate your team, demonstrate your character and emotional intelligence.

However, that's not to say that introverts have a monopoly on those abilities.

Humans are highly complex. You can have a mix of attributes that could define you as both an extrovert AND an introvert. For example, someone who prefers solitude, but who is far from shy in social situations.

Even if you do define yourself as one or the other, this article demonstrates that one type of personality is not superior to another.

It is what you do with your own characteristics – and how much you invest in developing your leadership skills - that dictate whether you are successful in business. Including enhancing your communication abilities to overcome any reticence about being 'the centre of attention'.