BY JOHN BRANDON
I’ve learned a lot about leadership lately. Back in my heyday as a middle manager in corporate America, and before that as a manager for a small start-up, I found my introverted personality worked against me most of the time.
Back then, I’d rather sit and read a book in a coffeeshop than kick back with employees after work. I shunned the spotlight and chose introspection instead.
Introversion as the Enemy
I once had a pivotal meeting with an employee. She was a project manager on my team (I had somehow worked up to a director position). Long story short: she told me I was the worst boss ever and she hated my guts. She asked how I ever got into this role. She wanted to quit, but I talked her off the ledge–mostly by apologizing to her.
At the time, I viewed this exchange as mostly my fault. I was just not social enough; I didn’t check in with her often enough to see how things were going. Sure, I had budgets to manage and meetings to attend. But my introverted personality got the best of me.
I’m not alone. After writing my story about carving out a management career as an introvert, I received dozens and dozens of supportive messages. It was in influx of people who have felt my pain. In most cases, the message was–“I’m also an introvert who struggles with managing people.”
The good news is, your personality may not dictate how well you manage people as much as you think. Both extroverts and introverts can do it. The skills can be learned, adjusted, tweaked, and augmented.
A Learned Skill
This study is a useful tool for understanding how your specific personality can help you lead in a small business, and that leadership is a skill, not a talent. To get a summary, I spoke with Jim Kouzes, the co-author of the report. Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote “The Leadership Challenge” book and conduct the Leadership Practices Inventory.
“Leadership is a set of skills and abilities that are learnable by anyone who has the desire to improve and the willingness to practice,” Kouzes says. “That’s true for extroverts and introverts alike. They each have particular preferences for how they energize themselves, take in information, make decisions, and organize themselves, but both are equally capable of providing exemplary leadership.”
Kouzes told me every personality type has to lead by example. This hit home for me: I used to think I had to be big and blustery with team members when talking about my vision. In reality, I could have accomplished the same goal in my own way. I didn’t need to try and be animated or social–I needed to improve my skills. The reason that employee thought I was a terrible boss was mostly due to my lack of communication, which didn’t have to be blustery at all–it just had to be consistent.
“Extroverts tend to express their passion about principles with great vigor, while introverts would be more likely to engage in quiet conversation about expectations,” explained Kouzes. For me, that would have meant more in-person mentoring with employees, learning about their needs and desires–something I’ve become very good at subsequently as a journalist over the past 12 years interviewing people.
Interestingly, I was exceptionally good at “visioneering” in the workplace. When I started in one corporate job with three people, it grew to almost 50 in only five years. We took on projects in every part of the organization, and I was good at selling our services. Many of these meetings involved one-on-ones with higher-level executives.
Kouzes says any personality type can learn the skill of communicating vision.
“Extroverts tend to demonstrate this practice by brainstorming opportunities or directly appealing to the desires of others,” he says. “Introverts, on the other hand, are more inclined to imagine what could be in their minds or exchanging ideas in one-on-one conversations. Extroverts have to work a bit harder at giving space to others to share their hopes, dreams and aspirations, while introverts are very mindful of the need to be inclusive,” he says.
It’s still a journey for me.
JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.