A Quiet Leader Is Still a Real Leader

By day, Tamar Charney is an editorial lead at National Public Radio. On the side, Tamar writes about all sorts of things, including horses, monsters, social media, and things Icelandic for a variety of outlets. Tamar’s writing bio and links to recent pieces for Public Radio International can be found here

The moment that changed how I saw myself was when I saw a comment posted on Facebook in response to my announcing that I was leaving my job: “I’m really going to miss [her] quiet, powerful influence, and her creativity as program director.”

It stopped me in my tracks.

For nearly nine years, I was a senior manager in charge of content strategy for a large public radio station. But I never really saw myself as a “powerful influence,” a leader, or a boss. I knew I was doing the job, but I wasn’t that person.

I was just a hard worker with a creative streak. But time and time again, in work and even back in school, I’d somehow end up in charge. A friend described me once as being a “reluctant leader.” I’d hang around long enough and was good enough at what I did that eventually I’d end up managing things and people. But that explanation made me even more convinced I was merely a phony leader.

To me, leaders and bosses were the alpha types. Leaders are the big and bold men and women who enjoy being center stage. People who like to hold forth; people confident in their pronouncements; people comfortable with other people; people other people want to be around.

People very different from my quiet loner self.

Yet, when I announced I was leaving, I was besieged with praise for what I’d done during my tenure—much of which felt hollow at first. I didn’t understand how I could have had that effect as it was stuff that I believed could only be accomplished by those confident alpha leaders.

Sure, I’d read Quiet. I knew about the research Susan Cain referenced about the undervalued abilities of introverted leaders, particularly in creative fields. But deep down, I still bought into the idea that the extroverts were the ones good at leadership and we introverts could only lead if we aped the characteristics of an extrovert. I could manage that for a lunch appointment or a meeting, but anybody who worked regularly with me knew that wasn’t really me. I figured they also knew I probably shouldn’t be in charge.

How can you be in charge when you routinely spend hours staring at your office wall, unsure what to do next? And really, do leaders sit in front of an employee thinking I have no freaking idea how to handle this situation, meanwhile asking question after question in a desperate effort to stall until any path forward comes to mind? And since when do bosses let their junior staff run meetings so they can avoid being the center of attention? Clearly, these were signs of my complete and utter incompetence. The organization where I worked could only have been successful in spite of me, not because of me.

Yet all the things I beat myself up about were actually what the research says makes introverted leaders successful. We take the time to think through where we want to lead an operation next. We ask questions and make sure we truly understand a situation when we’re called on to make a decision. We empower others to be leaders in their own right. And we know it isn’t about us but about our team.

Again, I’d read things to that effect. But I never really bought it.

Until I announced I was leaving, I still didn’t see that, rather than floundering, I was using the leadership tools of an introvert. The Facebook post helped made me understand that I had been a leader. Yes, a reluctant leader, an introverted leader, and an unconventional one, but still a leader nonetheless.

But it does make me wonder if another trait of introverted leaders is that we can see our accomplishments only in the rear-view mirror.

Field Notes brings you first-hand workplace experiences written by contributors who share their own stories, the lessons they’ve learned, and the unique benefits of a quiet approach to life in the office. Whether you’re an introvert looking to make the most of your strengths or an extrovert/ambivert who wants to learn how your quiet colleagues tick, Field Notes offers real-world insights about taking a walk on the quiet side. Submit your own story and watch this space for more perspectives from your colleagues.