The Introvert As a Leader

Reprinted from The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler © 2009 by Jennifer B. Kahnweiler (Berrett-Koehler).

As a consultant on-site for a few days, I could feel the tension. The “suits” were making a visit to the plant, and people seemed on edge. I watched the vice president of manufacturing walk into the break room. He earnestly approached each individual. I could hear him asking questions, and his attentive body language showed me he was tuned into the answers they were giving. I heard him ask one young worker, “How’s your mama?” The young man told him about the progress his mother had made since her illness the previous year. These kinds of conversations continued as he made his way around the room.

In the formal update later that day, he gave a sincere picture of the state of the company, and opened it up to questions. He neither talked down to the group nor appeared to gloss over the challenges ahead. In addition, he addressed the overtime issues directly by listening to concerns and stating his commitment to keep the group informed. When he walked back to his car, I asked several workers about their impressions, and the general consensus was that he “was cool.”

This guy had presence! He knew an important lesson about getting work done. By being genuine and showing a sincere interest in people’s top-of-mind issues (both personal and work-related), you build trust and honest communication. This ability to be so truly present with another person is one of the marks of effective leadership.

People who are considered introverted often report that they are more comfortable talking to others in a one-on-one situation than in a group. They are also considered to be excellent listeners who go for depth rather than breadth in their conversations. Often, it is a matter of knowing how to begin the conversation. You can start small. Learn people’s names. Find out if they have children or pets, and use ice-breakers to get the conversation going. The conversation usually will flow when you have hit an interest or concern the other person feels strongly about.

We will come back to presence in a bit, but first let’s look at leadership and introversion. In reviewing a great deal of research on the subject, I have not found specific evidence that says extroverts make better leaders than introverts do. A few studies have looked at introversion specifically, and the research window is open for more exploration on the subject. 

[Many] books and articles have been written about the traits of successful leaders. My clients confirm that good bosses have some common characteristics. 

Consider the list Daniel Goleman provides in Social Intelligence (Bantam, 2006). Good bosses are great listeners, encouragers, communicators, and courageous; they have a sense of humor, show empathy, are decisive, and take responsibility; and they are humble and share authority. It may be easier for introverts to exhibit some of the traits, for instance, to listen. It may be more natural for extroverts to demonstrate others of the traits, such as humor. But all of these traits can surely be mixed and matched. 

The following discussion is about being a successful leader in an organization. It is drawn from the lessons I have learned from both introverted and extroverted leaders. 


Stepping into a management role is a scary and exciting proposition for most of us. On the one hand, we are usually pleased to have been recognized for our accomplishments. On the other hand, we wonder if we are up to the task. We also are concerned about giving up what we do well to venture into a land of ambiguity.

Although no rule book exists for this move, training, coaching and mentoring will increase your chances of success. Here are the four touch points to consider in preparation: (1) know yourself; (2) know your team; (3) build in motivation; and (4) see the big picture.

1. Know Yourself

It has been said that the most difficult person you will ever manage is yourself, and we have to learn to manage ourselves in order to manage others. When you know your strengths and weaknesses, you can be more objective, detach when you have to, and show appropriate concern for others. Understanding your limitations also allows you to ask for help when you need it, and not shortchange your employees. Self-awareness helps you realize the value you bring to the team and gives you the confidence to ask for the challenging assignments and other opportunities you desire.

Blind spots can also emerge. Because you may be comfortable in a hands-on world, for example, you may not let go of tasks soon enough and fail to manage and coach your team, resulting in work overload and missed deadlines. Recognizing the lack of delegation as a weakness is something that can be remedied, but only after you take an honest look at yourself through self-assessment activities.

2. Know Your Team

You should plan for how you approach people in the preparation stage. Prepare in advance by getting a handle on the styles, skill sets and other preferences of those you will be supervising. 

Chuck Papageorgiou, managing partner of Ideasphere Partners, LLC, is a successful entrepreneur who has always impressed me with his ability to adapt his style. I asked him about the leadership approach he uses with introverts. 

Chuck, an extroverted manager, finds that when he “creates the right environment, there is no difference in performance between extrovert and introvert managers/executives.” He does change his style somewhat with introverts, however. He will, when faced with a challenge, “spend a few minutes creating a short but very clear request or description of the problem, present it to those managers with a time frame for a solution, and then walk away.” Chuck allows the more introverted managers to internalize the challenge, process the information, and get him an answer without feeling they have to come up with a response on the spot. Interestingly, he also told me he uses that approach successfully with extroverted managers “so they don’t give me the first answer that comes to their minds.”

3. Build in Motivation

Is it possible to prepare to motivate your employees? Yes. Part of the process involves understanding what motivates your people. Each person is different. Meeting with people one-on-one in the first 90 days of your job is a great strategy to understand more about who they are. You can then adapt your approach to match their needs. One IT manager I know realized that giving his top performer a vacation day was not an effective reward, but assigning him a complex problem to solve with time to focus on it really juiced him up.

Management consultant and author Marcus Buckingham believes that motivating employees is best done on a case-by-case basis. He writes that great managers know how to play the game of chess, rather than checkers. They learn how each chess piece moves and then incorporate these moves into their plan of attack (The One Thing You Need to Know, Free Press, 2005).

4. See the Big Picture

Daniel Pink believes that leaders need to move away from the notion of focus. [Though] a composer and conductor know that parts of orchestras need to play together, it is the entire orchestra that sounds magnificent. Symphony is the ability to grasp the relationship between relationships. Pink shared how he thought his notion of symphony might connect with the introvert. “Symphony is important to all leaders–but quiet leaders might have an edge because they do more listening–and therefore might get more and better information” (A Whole New World, Riverhead Books, 2006).

One practical suggestion Pink makes is to “turn your bulletin board into an inspiration board. Each time you see something compelling–a photo perhaps, or the page of a magazine–pin it to the board. Before long, you’ll start seeing connections between the images that will enliven and expand your thinking.” Prepare for your leadership role by using your right brain’s powers as well as your left brain’s, and the results will be powerful.


Making a profound impression on people is one aspect of presence. I attended a convention where the keynote speaker, William Strickland, Jr., mesmerized the crowd. Bill is an inspirational leader who has devoted his life and work to the poor youth of Pittsburgh. In the speech I heard, his message and delivery were so compelling that tears and sniffles were seen and heard throughout the audience. 

After his speech, I took a break, only to stumble upon him surrounded by a small group of people. I found myself face to face with Bill as he handed me his card and said, “Please come visit our center in Pittsburgh.” His eyes connected with mine. For those few seconds, I had his sincere attention. That is presence.

The next sections will explore three elements of presence that I have observed in successful leaders: (1) learn to delegate; (2) listen with attunement; and (3) observe facial expressions.

1. Learn to Delegate

In management classes I have led over the years, delegation seems the hardest skill for new managers to master. Learning how to delegate is not the hard part. It is a matter of matching the right person to the right task, knowing his or her capabilities, and coaching him or her. If you can guide the person more in the beginning and then slack off as he or she gains mastery, delegation can be successful.

The greatest barrier that I see, however, to embracing delegation is under the surface. Each of us has hot buttons that keep us from handing over the keys. I have experienced them all as a manager, until I learned that this resistance was holding me back from embracing leadership. If you are honest with yourself in the preparation phase, then you can identify your potential barriers to letting go of tactical work. What are your delegation hot buttons? Consider the counterarguments for each of them in the chart above to overcome your barriers.

2. Listen with Attunement

The vice president of manufacturing introduced at the beginning of the article showed adeptness in listening. Attunement is the term that Daniel Goleman uses for this type of listening skill. He describes it as “attention that goes beyond momentary empathy to fully, sustained presence that facilitates rapport…. We can all facilitate attunement simply by intentionally paying more attention.” Goleman says that real listening means we have a back-and-forth dialogue and “we allow the conversation to follow a course we mutually determine.” This kind of deep listening, he argues, is what distinguishes the best managers (2007). I like his term of having an “agenda-less” presence. You aren’t there to make the sale or prove your point, but to listen. 

It takes more focus than time to really listen. For the busy manager, this means looking up from your laptop or Blackberry. It may even mean scheduling some time with your employees when you can totally focus. It is your behavior, not your intention, that people will remember when it comes to listening.

3. Observe Facial Expressions

Consider the story of Nelson Mandela, the great South African leader. Apparently, he was a pretty dull speaker. What he did consistently in every setting was break out his huge smile. This symbolized his lack of bitterness toward white South Africans and communicated hope and triumph to black voters. Mandela’s smile was his message (“His Eight Lessons of Leadership,” Time Magazine, June 21, 2008).

Leaders working with culturally diverse groups need to have the ability to read facial expressions. For example, last year in Europe, I found myself with a group that was used to a more formal method of presentation than I was providing. They were pretty stone-faced. As we developed a rapport, I noticed their faces relax, along with their bodies. I clued into their eyes and consciously read that their responsiveness was increasing.

In summary, you can establish presence by delegating, listening with attunement, and observing facial expressions. These key strategies will set you up to add push approaches that can move you even further toward high performance as a leader.


These push techniques also incorporate preparation and presence approaches. As a newly emerging leader, don’t try to change everything overnight. This section lists some push strategies to incorporate into your plan: (1) assert yourself; (2) have conversations; (3) face conflict; (4) learn about the organization; and (5) keep learning. Let’s look at each one of them.

1. Assert Yourself

Assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness. It is not bullying. It is direct, open and honest communication. Many new managers fall victim to their own lack of assertiveness in an effort to please others or avoid conflict. 

Asking for what you need in a direct, open and honest manner is recommended in life and work. Sid Milstein, the former GE executive, had the mandate of implementing Six Sigma throughout the business in an initial climate of resistance. When he shared information, he was clear and direct, so everyone understood the next steps. When there were questions, he was open to dialogue.

Learn to be assertive by watching those leaders who communicate assertively. It is a process that can be practiced in venues outside of work. Take classes, watch role models, and hone this skill. The benefits will be great for everyone in your life.

2. Have Conversations

There was a theory back in the 1980s called MBWA, which stands for management by walking around. The idea was to encourage managers to get out of their offices and talk to people. Revolutionary for the time, it is commonly accepted today. But with so many more complex distractions, it is not always followed even though it is important. Make time, even if you have to schedule it, to talk to the people who work with you.

One former boss of mine used a conversational aid that combined the steps of presence and preparation. Jon carried index cards around with the name of each direct report at the top of each card. As he went through the week, he wrote down feedback, specific questions, and new ideas he had. He would stop in with each of us at intervals, and used his list as an agenda. While we all kidded Jon about being anal from time to time, the truth was that we were interested in knowing what he had written on our card that week! In addition to being prepared and a very efficient use of time, it made each of us feel recognized (presence).

One program manager I interviewed recommended recording the names of people you compliment and whose performance you reinforced, noting also the frequency of such feedback. Because what is measured is often what gets done, you will find this increasing the rate of your positive feedback. If you cringe at the idea of spontaneous, face-to-face, impromptu meetings, using these approaches should help you feel more prepared as you enter the presence and push steps of this action.

3. Face Conflict

Conflict is any disagreement between people. Though the definition by itself is not negative, many of us experience discomfort when team members disagree, employees push back or bosses question us. It helps to remember that conflict is natural, necessary and normal. In fact, creative solutions to problems rarely occur without the tension of dissimilar ideas.

Managing conflict constructively is a challenge. Not only will you be managing people from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but you may already be working across the globe with customers, vendors and partners. One introverted Dutch manager told me that her team in the U.S. is more sensitive to direct feedback, but her employees in Holland expect ongoing constructive comments from her. Therefore, she has to adjust her approach with each group to be effective. As a leader, the more educated you can become in learning ways to move through these issues, the more ahead of the game you will be.

4. Get Organizational Knowledge

Branch out of your specialty area and learn more about your organization. Learn to connect the work of your group to the vision of the organization. Be up on trends so you can suggest directions for upper management to explore. In this knowledge economy, you add value by the ideas you bring.

Develop high organizational acumen. Spend time in the field and take temporary assignments in other areas of the organization. This all contributes to a much deeper understanding and insight into how you are connected to your organization, and you will also gain more visibility. As a result, you will be able to translate the bigger vision to your team. 

Learn to think in terms of results that matter to your company. It may be cost savings or increased revenues. What are the bottom-line benefits that matter? Education, government and nonprofit organizations have different measures of success that are important to them. Is it higher enrollments or grant monies that you obtain? Whether selling up or down the organization, learn about what really matters to all your customers.


Surround yourself with a support system. Even though you value your time alone, you can schedule one-on-ones and communicate in writing with these members of your informal advisory board. No one succeeds by themselves. You can hire a coach, enlist a mentor, and rely on experienced team members. One introverted woman I know put off a discussion with an employee to avoid conflict. She gritted her teeth and sent a quick email to her coach, which prepared her for a discussion that ended up going very well.

Another practice strategy is to ask for the training you need to be successful. Enrolling in both classroom and online seminars can be a way to help you practice these skills and gather a wide variety of differing and helpful views from other participants. 

Becoming a manager is not for everyone. You need to decide whether you want to take that step. But keep in mind that being an introvert is no reason to avoid becoming a manager. 


Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, president of the consulting firm AboutYOU, Inc., is author of The Introverted Leader. A leadership expert with 25 years of experience, she holds a PhD in counseling and organizational development. Jennifer lives in Atlanta, GA. Visit her blog at

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