The Qualities of an Introverted Leader

By Miranda Johnson

At the beginning of my freshman year, I was in continual contact with my Geometry teacher to see if there was any way to accelerate my mathematics education. I was picking up the concepts quickly and would regularly spend the last thirty minutes of my math classes bored while my classmates caught up. Since there were a few other students in my position, my mother thought to reach out to the school to see if there were any alternatives.

My teacher and counselor told us that there were no other options and that I should just try to improve my current situation by helping out the less mathematically-oriented students at my table. My mathematics teacher even went so far as to say that she would be much more willing to write me a better recommendation if I were to help those around me.

Now I get that helping people is a great thing to do. I want to be able to help those in need—no matter the circumstance. When I envision the ideal me, I see a person who is generous like that. But for me as an introvert with social anxiety, putting that ideal into practice is a bit more complicated; it takes a degree of mental and psychological gymnastics that I am frequently incapable of performing. My teacher had no idea of the amount of stress and apprehension that proposition caused me. I did not end up helping many people during the year, and the times that I could force myself to do so were few and far between.

And do you know what? When at the end of the year that teacher gave out an award to her “best” student, the award was not given to me or to the other student whom she nominated to go to preliminary trials for the National Math Olympiad. It went to a girl who was outgoing and helpful, but—although good at math—not the best in the class. This was the first time I came face to face with the subconscious bias against introverts to which I had only thus far been marginally exposed.

On a macro-level, our subconscious bias against introverts has the potential to be detrimental to society. When you put your life in the hands of a doctor, you want the most competent one that you can get; when you entrust your tax dollars to NASA, you want the most skilled engineers designing the equipment so that your money is not wasted. If we keep prioritizing gregariousness over competency, work quality will not meet its potential. On a personal level, as I get ready to apply for colleges, I worry about the effect this bias will have on me. If a university were to compare my application with the application of the girl who received the math award, they would likely assume that she is better at math than me. Universities are making decisions with faulty information, and these decisions have a major impact on my life, on the academic rigor of their own programs, and on the quality of graduates they send off into the world.

A contributing factor to the bias against introverts is the dissociation between introverts and leaders. When you think of the word “leader,” what traits immediately come to mind? According to a study by Kirkpatrick and Locke, the traits most associated with leadership are self-confidence, charisma, drive, motivation, creativity, and cognitive ability. When you do a search for “extrovert,” words and phrases such as “open,” “friendly,” “approachable,” “leader,” “sociable,” “verbose,” and “able to take the initiative” appear. There is a high correlation between what we imagine “extroverts” and “leaders” to be. But the two are not actually synonymous. There are several aspects of leadership that are less obvious but equally important, and introverts frequently excel at these.

Although my experience in math class was not ideal for me as an introvert, I was able to have a much better experience on my swim team. I was very fortunate to be welcomed onto the team with open arms despite my inexperience. I quickly fell in love with swimming, and because of my devotion, I began to demonstrate what the team later told me were leadership qualities—ones that fit with my introversion.

What made the biggest difference? I showed up. Every day. It almost killed me not to. Knowing that I would be there every day, some of the girls started showing up for practice on days they otherwise would not have. I also noticed that the coaches seemed more and more motivated because they could always count on at least one person being present who cared and was eager for their coaching. Although I’m rarely in a leadership position, I do always try hard so the people around me reassess what they think the minimum level of effort should be.

And here is another quality I have that I did not realize until recently was indicative of leadership: I excel at listening. I realized how powerful this was while attending a weeklong summer camp with girls from my church. I was not excited about the prospect of being around people non-stop for five days. Before the first day was even over, I wanted to curl up in a fetal position. As the days slowly passed, filled with camp songs and vigor, I thankfully became better at allocating time away from the other campers to decompress.

My exhaustion was exacerbated by the affection the younger girls had for me because I took the time to listen to them. I let them do all the talking, and when the situation required me to talk, I praised and complimented them. In my own introverted way, this is how I try to keep a conversation going, but they welcomed the opportunity to have such an eager audience. Not once was I able to walk by without them calling out their nickname for me, smiling and waving. I eventually got used to it, but it left me completely befuddled. That amount of eager social approval was unusual to me! It took me a while to realize that my ability to listen was what they were responding to.

The skills I have developed as an introvert, from listening to others to being a reliable and competent presence, have served me well in a variety of arenas. And I like to think they have helped others as well. Whether it is in a classroom, a swimming pool, at a camp, or in an admissions office, productive organizations should look more closely at an individual’s strengths and work history and use those, rather than awards and titles, as an assessment tool. If admissions continue to choose to look at prospective students through the same closed-minded lens that my math teacher did, there will be a decrease in the diversity and productivity of colleges and the workforce. Though people with quieter skills might not be the first to win an award or hold the title of team captain, they are likely doing their best work and offering their best ideas in different, and just as important, ways.

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  • Nathan Engle

    Miranda, I think you have done a great service by talking about your experiences. I do believe our teaching culture has improved and that someone on that staff spoke to that person. I was taught that the first thing you established in the classroom was relationships and I still believe it. I would add another trait to your list of leaders…height. It also seems to help if you are tall. This trait has nothing to do with leadership, but I have noticed a lot of tall men promoted into administration because of their height. You also point out, about listening being important and it is! Unfortunately, most of us do not listen well and I am still learning. I hope you succeed as who you are and the right person recognizes your strengths.

  • Monica Ram

    Do not give up yet Miranda.. I was an extreme introvert all throughout school and college…but today things have eventually changed…as I grew up, I shed of a lot of my inhibitions about social mingling. Introverts have an edge over others since they look around and and observe..and then act not react..this can be a rare quality..and I have seen enough introverted leaders…on the face of it aggressive and attention seeking people may appear attractive to novices..but to seasoned professionals..NO…the work achieved as an individual also counts 🙂

  • Susan Cain

    I love this, Miranda, and would love to have you on my swim team!!

  • Frenz D. Dela Cruz

    Thanks a lot for this blog. Now i know that being an introvert is not a cursed. Ever since i look being an introvert as a burden, a restrain to my social life and an antagonist in realizing my self-worth. Before i’m always asking myself why am i like this? Why i’m different from other kids, Why i’m so quiet? Why most of the time i prefer to be alone than to have a company of others? I believe that i have a dual personality, first is a personality that i really hate because of being an introvert and the second one is the personality that i envision in myself. That is before. Now, i accept myself 100% that being an introvert is a gift. We have individual differences. Maybe i’m quit different from other people but i’m also a man with great hope beyond the wall.

  • rrlsudha rrl

    Very interesting article. I felt someone speaking out my feelings. Every point mentioned here takes me back to my experiences as an introvert. It really makes us feel sad when we are not noticed just because our nature is not to be loud. Yes we loose so many opportunities. People do not remember our names when a choice has to be made from a set of people. Only a baby which cries gets mother’s attention. I have stopped analysing about the opportunities, awards.. Its very peaceful for me to concentrate on the work silently. The completed work gives me the happiness when I see the final result in front of me. My ideas transforming into a visual thing. This perspective came after so many years. Its really required in schools and at homes to understand these things.

  • Christina Cooper

    Wow – Miranda, any college that is smart enough to accept you is going to be LUCKY. You are a very perceptive and deep-thinking girl.

  • Leah Gully

    If only there were discussions like this when I was in school. The first time I realized introversion was a normal trait for a large part of the population I was in my mid thirties. All along I felt like I was a faulty human being. I am 43 and still struggle with “not being an extrovert”, since extrovert behaviour is heavily rewarded in western society. The whole concept of leadership gives me a stomach ache since I feel I am worthy to lead but can’t do it because I don’t fit that mold. All I can say, is I am so glad to see young people discussing this so kids and teen who are introverts don’t feel that there is something wrong with them.

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  • Kimberly Kiner

    Awesome article! Every teacher, professor, youth leader and CEO should read this enlightening perspective. This country would have more competent workers at every level if loyalty and intelligence were valued over charisma.

  • Ericka Carr Chilcoat

    Miranda, thank you so much for this article. I found it very interesting that you saw the bias against introverts, but still moved forward and found several arenas where your introversion is valued!

  • amylynn1022

    I’m surprised that no one has commented on the school’s expectation that Miranda tutor her classmates because she was so far ahead in the class. Unfortunately this is not the first time I’ve heard of this, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of a teacher tying a recommendation to it. It doesn’t matter what her temperament is, it’s educational malpractice. She’s there to learn, not be an unpaid teacher’s aide. Especially in this day when there is access to online and other enrichment resources there is really no excuse to intentionally hold a student back.

    Certainly, students should be encouraged to help one another, but I find these situations work best when they are mutual exchanges. And I know my school offered peer tutoring, for students that were interested. I even staffed the Homework Hotline a few times. But these were all voluntary activities and were never used in place of appropriate educational opportunities.

  • Anna

    At my university there was also a lot of groupwork in most courses and one of the grades that you received during these courses was a participation grade. You can already guess that the people who had often no idea what there were talking about because they did not prepare but were talking most of the time received a good grade for participation, while I and others who were introvert and participated in these discussions by only commenting when we thought that we had something useful to share received a D for participation. Participating is not only about talking all the time and attracting attention, but also being quiet and being able to listen to other people and their opinions.

  • AnnF

    The assumption that gregariousness is linked to competence is indeed pervasive in our society. As I was building my career I noticed that “likable” individuals sometimes had access to opportunities that I did not have, even though I could see their competence level was no more than average. This continues to be the case even in a field that tends to attract introverts. Because we are social animals I think it’s just natural for people to take care of those who they accept as part of their circle, but unfortunately this leads to bias based on personality.

    The reader who commented that “no one works alone” is correct; however, tasks that require long periods of focus and concentration often cannot be accomplished collaboratively. It’s unfortunate that schools and businesses have adapted the concept that work is best be done in team settings, because although the ability to work as part of a team is a valuable and necessary skill it is not appropriate in all circumstances with all tasks.

    There is so much more awareness about this than there was when I was young, thanks to people like Susan Cain. I was in my 40’s before I realized that there was really nothing wrong with me. It is hard – and in truth I think of it as a handicap – to live in this world as an introvert. But God does not make mistakes and there is a reason He gifted us as He did. We may have to learn to adapt to a certain degree and learn to do things that don’t come naturally if we want to compete, but it doesn’t mean that we have to pretend to be something that we are not.

  • Rhonda Gentry

    Thank you so much for these articles. It is finally comforting to know that “I’m normal!” For yrs, you wonder why you can’t seem to fit in, hold a conversation with someone for more than 5 mins and feel like you are going to implode, you arelooked over all your life. It is ok to be ME. I am a good, creative person. Caring, have alot to offer and have realized I don’t have to be a fake extrovert and be miserable. Thank you again.

  • Gabrielle Keegan O’Hara

    This article makes so much sense to me and that’s most probably because I’m an introvert. I cringe inside when I am put in the spotlight or have to be assertive. I always hope that something miraculous will happen to solve the situation. Thank you for reminding us introverts that we are normal.

  • Jessica Alves

    Good article but I think that something is missing… It is partially true that society is “unfair” to introverts –as it sounded when you told your history about geometry classes, and several examples in the commentaries below. When you gave the example of the NASA engineering and the medical doctor, you forgot something crucial. You forgot to consider that hardly someone works alone nowadays. Problems are hardly able to be solved by only one single person. The world is really complex. Of course that, it might sound very silly for you to force yourself to teach people, maybe pointless for trying hard and being able to do that (I know it is difficult), but it does make sense the reason why your teacher didn’t chose you. In the future, probably you will work in a team and need to talk –not only listen. I’m not saying that listening is not a wonderful thing, but it is not enough to solve problems that you are going to be paid for. And that is the characteristic that introverted people have to improve (similarly, the listening ability that extroverted people need to improve). It is not easy, but as soon as you begin to create your abilities (not necessarily being a leader, just talking to people and spreading your ideas) and keeping your listening skills, you will be able to reach levels once unlikely.

  • Mattias Marchese

    While I was reading you article, which I found to be very interesting, I couldn’t help but think about this happening inside family circles. You see, my family is composed by my divorced parents, my brother and myself. My brother and I hang out A LOT with two of my cousins and their father (my uncle) and for some reason they always relied on my brother for pretty much every thing. They would invite him for trips and ask him the most for help when it came to moving cars here and there (we are a lot into Motorsports, but I´m the least enthusiast of the five). For some time I thought that there should have been a starting point, or a reason behind this that I was left (unconsciously) apart. But as I read your article it made the most sense to me, for the same reasons you mention. As an introvert, I simply don´t stand out. I am quiet, I tend to answer differently and in a “deeper” way, and these guys simply focus more on my brother. Jealous? nope. Just feeling left aside. But I really appreciate your article because it has shed a light into my question of “why?” and leaves me at ease.
    So, leadership comes not only in professional circles, but also in family circles. There are many different ways of leadership, but the common thing about them is the sense of being reliable and trust worthy.

  • Marlana Sherman

    Thanks for sharing this story. I never really thought about listening being a skill for leadership or any of the other skills you presented. Excellent story.

  • asdfd

    Well-written article, Miranda. I experienced similar bias in school, and it caused me to dislike school very much. Fortunately, my experience in the working world has been much better. I once applied for a job where I later learned the manager was torn between two candidates: me, the “quiet one,” and an outgoing, boisterous woman. He chose the quiet one, and when I eventually left the position he said I was the best person they’d ever had in the role. I believe fair managers know that people have different styles toward work, and as long as we get the job done, they don’t care how we approach it. I know I’ve been lucky to have fair managers and this isn’t everybody’s experience, but it’s a positive sign to look for when you’re critically evaluating a job offer.

  • AlFateh1969

    I’m very introverted too. You will do well and better than everyone in college. But when it comes to employment, those HR people will overlook you because they’ve been taught that the best candidate is someone with extroverted characteristics. We live in a generation that values personality over character.

  • Carl Oiler

    I’m a father of a boy and a girl who are now out in the world living their life.As a father I cant tell you how proud of you I am.Your a very intelligent mindfull young lady.Minds like yours are the minds that should shape our country.But your happiness is the most important thing to me and I hope you as well.Dont let this world get you down sweetheart,your to smart for that.We are out there looking for you and young people like you that are brilliant.YES…brilliant you are!! All the best my brilliant young child.

  • Ann

    I have gone through the very same thing so many times in my life. I have been overlooked many times when in fact I had the best record. I share your frustration and appreciate what you have to say about the approach you have taken to dealing with the situation.

  • Rohan G

    A very interesting article and one that hits home directly….being a leader and an introvert. I agree with IWA2016 in that society rewards personality rather than character….it seems to answer for a huge number of work experiences I’ve had dealing with various types of leaders and my complete inability to understand how certain traits which I would find unacceptable (such as being too pushy) are found wanted. Although I can account to some professional loses being an introvert in a cage of the opposite – and yes, even trying to mimic certain ‘acceptable’ traits…I found myself being rather disgruntled and chose to continue with the how and what of who I am. In all actuality, I have found introverted leaders to be more welcoming and both loyalty drawn and loyalty giving.