We come into our work lives with notions about leadership. We experience being led all our lives – by parents, teachers, coaches, etc. – and from these experiences we draw conclusions about what a leader does or does not do. Of course, not all of our experiences as followers are positive, so, in some cases, our notions may be formed based on those more negative experiences, Regardless of how we get them, we have ideas about what a leader should look like.
Often our image of a good leader is of someone who commands a room, speaks authoritatively and is comfortable delivering speeches in front of groups small and large. Some leaders are like that.
There are plenty of great leaders, however, who are not that “in-the-front-of-the-room, larger-than-life” persona. There are effective leaders who are unobtrusive, speak thoughtfully and are more comfortable in small groups than large ones.
I had a colleague who was very well respected and quite effective in her role at a Director level. She was a reserved, thoughtful person who hired great people and was not threatened by them. She listened intently to everyone and was a bit cautious in her approach but flexible. Nearly everyone liked working for her and with her.
Oddly, though, each year in her performance review she was rated a little lower because she did not speak up more. It was the major, and sometimes the only, criticism she received. Once, in exasperation after receiving this feedback yet again, she said to me, “Why do extroverts consider introversion a disability?”
I laughed. As an extrovert, I knew what she was referring to. If you are a gregarious, out front sort of person it is hard to imagine why everyone else isn’t. It is easy to see a good leader as being a person who is like you.
Of course, that need not be the case.There are plenty of very effective leaders who are reserved and lead more quietly than loudly. The people who work for them value their steadiness, their thoughtfulness and their ability to patiently, wisely respond to crises.
Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, all kinds of communication and personality styles. The most important aspect of a leader’s persona is not whether she is outgoing or reserved but rather whether she is flexible. No matter what your default setting, can you be bold when needed and reserved at the times required? Can you speak up when the moment calls for it and listen when it doesn’t?
If you are a more reserved leader, don’t absorb the pressure from others to be different than you are. Use your natural abilities to their fullest and, when needed, use others to complement your strengths. Value the ways your nature brings out the best in others.
Of course, all leaders must exude the confidence, decisiveness and connectedness that elicits followership. This is key to effectiveness in the role. So perhaps if you are more reserved you need to attend to this differently than an extrovert would. You may be required to put yourself out more than you might naturally prefer. Just be assured that we all have ways we can strengthen our presence with others.
So here is a shout out to the more reserved leaders everywhere:We need you. Thank you for listening when the rest of us are only speaking. Thank you for being thoughtful when actions should be more carefully considered, and patience is the better wisdom. Thank you for owning who you are and reminding us that we all need space to do the same.