Learning to be a Quiet Leader

By Jake Millman

Something happened when I began middle school that forever changed the way I thought about myself.

Before that event, I knew that I was more soft-spoken than most of my friends. In all aspects of my life—academic, athletic, and social—I was reluctant to dominate the conversation, but I never saw this as a negative. Perhaps I was young and oblivious, but prior to middle school, I do not ever recall being criticized for my introverted nature.

At the start of the sixth grade, I was particularly quiet in the classroom. It’s not that I was disengaged, unprepared, or afraid; I just preferred to listen to the teacher and class conversation before I contributed. Everything seemed fine until report card time rolled around.

In middle school, we received new report cards that included the standard A-F grades. But they also had rankings on a scale of 1-5 for various attributes, ranging from organization to ability to focus. In history class, I achieved a fine grade, but when I scrolled down, I noticed a “1,” the lowest attribute rating. I immediately felt my stomach drop as I wondered what I could have failed at so terribly. The answer: leadership. Why did my teacher think I was such an inept leader? I was quiet, but what did that have to do with leadership?

I had always seen myself as a leader. In small groups, my friends listened to what I had to say, and I often mobilized the group even if it was just to play soccer during recess. For the first time, I started to doubt myself. Perhaps my teacher was right: I was a quiet kid, and leaders cannot be quiet. I began to form negative associations with being quiet. I became hyper-aware of how I behaved in the classroom and so self-conscious that it prevented me from speaking. I was not only quiet but now also afraid and unsure of myself.

Yet, in the back of my mind, I was still confused. I was placed on the bottom rung for leadership, with no explanation for why or how to improve. I struggled with the relationship between speaking frequency and leadership. Looking back, I expectedly, but foolishly, concluded that speaking a lot was a prerequisite for leadership, yet this was a skill I simply did not possess. Moving forward from that moment, I thought something was wrong with me, and I needed to change.

This negative mindset followed me into the seventh grade until the night my mom explained that I was an introvert. I was 12 at the time and not familiar with this word, so she explained it to me. She talked about the fact that introverts prefer less outside stimulation, need some solitude, and are often quieter than their extroverted peers. She explained that people are different and often misunderstand the actions of others: for instance, they may confuse introversion with shyness or aloofness.

Initially, I flat out rejected this label. I associated this new word with quiet, and it seemed to reinforce the idea that I couldn’t be a leader. As I mulled it over, however, I realized that she had accurately described many of my behaviors. I did—and do—get over-stimulated easily, enjoy time alone after that stimulation, and speak less than most of my peers.

Because of that conversation, I realized I was an introvert. More than that, I realized introversion was a normal aspect of personality and there was no reason to change myself to fit a societal norm or, more specifically, one teacher’s expectation. I began to develop the confidence to put myself forward while always remaining true to myself and my introspective nature.

From that time forward, I actively sought and held many leadership positions at my school. I’m still soft-spoken and still enjoy my alone time, but that has not hindered my ability to make an impact on my school community. After that pivotal conversation with my mother, my confidence was solidified when I read Quiet on her recommendation. I now understand that education on introversion and extroversion is essential to understanding human differences and accepting our inherent strengths and weaknesses. I’ve discovered that despite the thoughts of my sixth-grade history teacher, quiet leadership is not an oxymoron.