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.