An Introvert's Manifesto on Leadership
"We don't need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run." —Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking
For as long as I can remember, my drive defined me. The competitive side, the passion, maybe even a bit of rebel spirit. You could call it an entrepreneurial streak, but I never thought of it that way. Me as a leader? That was completely out of the question. Leaders were the talkers, the jokers, the ones who made themselves heard in meetings. I thought I didn't have the skillset to be a leader, at least how it was traditionally defined.
In full transparency, I wasn't focused on leadership. I wanted to break the mold and do something different. I was obsessed with creating something entirely new, building from the ground up. I was different, or at least I felt different. I wasn't the loudest one in the room. I stood out by blending in, which is something I wasn't always happy about. My responses were slow, methodical, and thought-out. I was thinking one, five, sometimes 10 years down the line. I was, by definition, an introvert.
When I stumbled into advertising, something dawned on me late in the game. It was something that was probably obvious to most of my co-workers early on and what attracted them to the industry in the first place. Advertising is an industry almost completely built for extroverts. Group work, late nights, lavish events; an industry where fast reaction is prioritized over thoroughness. I saw it as something to be overcome, a challenge for myself. It was a game I could play ball in, for calculated periods of time. That is, until a few famous introverts started speaking up and I started leaning in.
Quiet by Susan Cain opened the world to the benefits of having introverts in business and leadership positions. Despite the newfound understanding of introverts driven by her New York Times best-seller, it didn't really become easier for introverts to function in this over-vocalized world. After all, extraversion is one of the highest praised attributes in America. But how often we forget that this isn't necessarily true of all countries. Where have the introverts in American advertising gone? They were edged out: to careers in research, engineering, accounting or law. They embarked on solo pursuits, careers that were more supportive of their working style.
Unlike extroverts, for introverts, their internal world is their "real world." For that reason, it literally takes more time for a thought to travel into your brain as an introvert. More processing needs to be done, and they often understand concepts on a deeper level as a result. Introverts need time and space. They need more preparation. Quick reactions are not our initial forté.
The advertising industry, as well as others, fetishizes fast, but who said fast is always good? Fast is emotional. Fast is primal. Fast is not always accurate.
Our first reactions are not always our most calculated. Kahneman popularized "slow thinking" in his Nobel Prize-winning book Thinking, Fast and Slow. If we can't always trust our initial reactions as individuals, why should companies not adopt this insight at a larger scale? In organizations, it is the long-term, strategic moves that make the biggest difference. In the end, speed often kills creativity and productivity. Could we reframe prioritizing speed for prioritizing efficacy? We could all use more time to go deeper on a project, time to acquire a different perspective and a more thought-out conclusion.
And then 2020 happened. For me, the workplace shift that occurred due to the pandemic has been this great social experiment for introverts and extroverts. In a way, going virtual during the pandemic has been a kind of great equalizer among the personality dichotomies. It provides everyone an equal stage in many ways. Everyone's screen is the same size in Zoom; there are fewer interruptions or people talking over one another. Additionally, our schedules have become more our own, which means more time for deep work, "pre-work" and reflection. In a way, it was a major win for introverted leaders. These tweaks have allowed introverts to shine in a way that would be almost impossible to duplicate in an office setting.
As some of us prepare to head back to the centralized workplace mode, we need to continue to rethink and redefine inclusiveness within organizations. We all agree that diversity needs to be physical—race, ethnicity, gender—so we should also all agree we need diversity of thought, a recognition beyond what is seen in appearance. In our companies, we need to allow time to think, to allow space. We need to incorporate the slower but more thoughtful opinion: to reward depth. Would the work be better? Would it reshape the philosophies we hold? Future-proof our companies? Would it make us anti-fragile?
Like the complete nerd I am, one definition of "value" has always stuck with me from college. One philosopher discussed value in this way: how closely you can intertwine various diverse and unique parts into a comprehensive whole. The further apart the components, the greater the value. I am grateful to work at a company where this is central to their philosophy. They hire the most diverse talent (of all types) and space is held for the most differentiated perspectives. As we push forward with technology at a perpetually rapid pace, we still must find the time and space to slow down and think, really think.
Here's to the introverted leaders keeping our heads in the sky, but our feet on the ground in a world of ever-accelerating change.