Setting Yourself Free with the Power of Quiet


“A Cantadora is a female leader who keeps the stories of her community and shares them with others when she believes that they need help . . . Stories filled me with enough strength and hope to promise myself that someday I would be able to use my voice to give the silent voices a chance to be heard.”

These words, delivered in an inspiring talk by Angela, a 14-year-old camper at the Hotchkiss Student Leadership Institute, where I taught 20 high school students last summer, reflect a deep — and deeply undervalued — understanding of what it means to be an effective leader (watch the video of Angela’s speech here). Through storytelling, leaders can, as Wharton professor Adam Grant puts it, “help communities to breathe.” Or, in the words of Angela, enable others to “break away from what keeps everyone else feeling comfortable.”

Yet it can be frightening to share our stories with others.

Not Normal

 “As a kid, I was labelled as shy, anxious, slow . . . It’s when you believe that something is wrong with you, the world becomes a terrifying place.”

As Angela recounts in her moving talk, she was once deemed “not normal.” She sought leadership training because she was told that she could never be a leader. Her teachers interpreted her preference for solitude, including reading quietly in the classroom instead of joining others on the playground, as a sign of a learning disability. These educators are certainly not alone in their analysis of introverted kids. We still — often unconsciously — fuel the myth of what Susan Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal: our enduring cultural bias towards charismatic, gregarious, and alpha leaders. 

Yet do we really want approximately half of our students, who have introverted temperaments, to think that they are less than their extroverted peers? Do we want those who thrive on solitude for processing, decision-making and recharging — and tend to prefer one-on-one socializing as opposed to larger groups — to feel as though they are “not normal”? Of course not.

Set It Free

“Within each of us lives a proud, inspiring, and sometimes quiet Cantadora. Please remember to set it free.” 

In order to foster more temperament-inclusive classroom environments — and empower quiet leaders like Angela– we educators can help to set our students free. In all our schools, from K through 12 and beyond, we might begin with these questions:

  • To what extent does our school favor bold talkers over reflective listeners as school leaders?
  • Do we prize action and stimulation over deliberation and solitude?
  • Do we require constant collaboration in open spaces?

Next, let’s make time, and plan ahead, for one-on-one quiet leadership coaching sessions.  Often, but certainly not always, the idea of giving a speech in front of 200 people, at a podium, in an auditorium is a horrifying prospect! I frequently hear students say that they just can’t do it. Our job is to help them understand that flexing — in the name of a core personal project, a goal that cuts to the core of their values and ideals — can not only be manageable, but also life-changing. The earlier that students learn this lesson, the better. But it needs to be done with intention and care, and with an emphasis on purpose rather than achievement, process rather than goal.

In one-on-one sessions, I often begin by divulging that I never spoke up in class until I became a French teacher myself. As the student and I share our vulnerabilities, we open channels of communication.  I tell them that I was extremely shy, afraid of saying something “stupid” or not being “charming” enough. I suggest that they think of themselves as simply ‘vehicles’ for sharing stories that might change the world.

I also take the Long Runway approach, assuring the student that we’ll rehearse multiple times, and ensuring, behind the scenes, that there will be smiling faces in the audience to offer real-time support. Finally, I insist that the student plan a way to recharge after stepping so dramatically outside their comfort zones.  “Carve out some alone time after your speech,” I advise them. “You’ll need it.”

Believe in Me

“My mom believed endlessly in me,” said Angela, and it showed. And we believe in her too. Because it’s only when we “believe endlessly” in all our students that we can help them to become role models for the generations that follow them.

Here’s to preparing the next generation to tell their own stories . . . please share!