Thursday, February 9, 2012

introverts and leadership

Look at a job listing for any leadership position and you'll probably notice that people are looking for a superhuman.  Not only must a leader be a visionary, but he or she must also be charismatic with people.  Pastors must get the bottoms in the seat, but also produce well thought-out, deep sermons and set a compelling and Scriptural vision for a church.  Political leaders must spend time "relating to" people and kissing babies.  Leaders must be: Happy and hopeful.  "On" in public, all the time.  Yet, conscientious and attentive to detail.

We cannot, of course, have it all in one person.

I have wondered for a while now if part of the reticence to Mitt Romney as a presidential nominee is not only due to the occasional insensitive comment he makes or his position-shifting, but rather to some introvert tendencies that he seems to display.  (Note: Though I attempted to do research on whether Governor Romney is, in fact, an introvert or not, I was unable to find any definitive data.)

Though we do not know for sure if Governor Romney is an introvert, we can certainly agree that he displays a certain social awkwardness and stunted ability to turn on the charisma and charm people. 

Yet, we also know that Governor Romney thinks in a careful, nuanced way, as he did in his rich and resonant speech on his Mormon faith and religious faith in America in 2007.  Romney is a deep thinker, but not necessarily skilled in extroverted back-slapping and baby kissing.  People hold this against him, but I ask if his lack of people skills means he cannot be a great leader? 

In my work as a pastoral intern and then as a pastor, I found two things to be true.  One was that I was naturally shy and could easily use that as an excuse to hide out in my office, avoiding the difficulty of social interaction.  Certainly, I brought some of people's occasional frustration with me on myself.  For to be a good pastor, you must love and know your people, not just think about them.

But the second thing I found to be true was that while I often needed to stretch outside my comfort zone more than I did, like a rubber band, there was only so far I could be stretched without snapping.  I can develop skills that do not come naturally, but I cannot change my overall personality.  For good or for ill, I am an introvert.  I like people, but I don't gain energy from being with them most of the time.  I enjoy having long periods of time spent in thought and reflection.  I function best when I can read, encounter new ideas, watch the world around me and carefully analyze what is good and what can be better.  I like to listen to people and learn things about them, too.  I believe I serve best when I am allowed to use these gifts, rather than hide them under a bushel, forever chasing the unreachable goal of an extroverted personality. 

We need both extroverts and introverts in the world of leadership.  Extroverts excel at reaching out to large groups of people and making them feel wanted, invited, and cared for.  They know how to generate excitement and enthusiasm.  They know how to get big groups of people together.  They know how to form a tribe.

But introverts stand back in the shadows and carefully analyze not just the quantity but the quality of the work.  They know that depth is just as important as breadth.  Introverts listen to people; they pay attention.  To put it baldly: They know when to shut up.  They offer correctives and cautions that extroverts in their enthusiasm may have missed.  In their willingness to spend time alone in thought, they help governments, companies and churches to develop integrity and depth in the work that they do. 

Without introverts, it is hard to form a mission with depth.  Without extroverts, it is hard to get people to buy-in to the mission. 

Yes, I am painting in broad strokes.  There is a continuum, to be sure, of introversion and extroversion.  But to simply choose our leaders based on their charisma, without attention to their depth and character, is a mistake.  Perhaps we ought to look at our potential and current leaders with an eye to whether they surround themselves with people who balance out their inadequacies, with an eye to their character, with an eye to the depth of their thought.  After all, it is not enough to build a tribe if you have nowhere to lead them.

Note: Politics can be a powder keg and I am certainly not endorsing Governor Romney in this post, but am simply offering some food for thought, regardless of who each of us votes for in the midst of the election season.

For more on introverts and extroverts and leadership, check out this article on Psychology Today's website and this one on


  1. As always I enjoy your perspective. From one introvert to another thanks for showing the good qualities of introversion in leadership.

    1. I talk so much about introverts, I always worry about being self-aggrandizing. But...I really do appreciate the gifts extroverts bring to the table. I just would like to talk about the differences the two personalities have and the often-ignored strengths of introverts.

  2. Well said, Rebecca!!! Rodney Cox of Ministry Insights says something like this: we need to lead from our strengths and staff to our weaknesses. We need both introverts AND extroverts. We need people that move slowly and thoughtfully AND we need people that can make a decision and move quickly when its necessary. One is not superior to the other. But each needs to be wise enough to staff to their weaknesses, and to deeply appreciate those that are wired differently. People walking in wisdom know that they should not surround themselves only with people like themselves. I, too, am a "Thinker" and a "Processor" and I know I can easily frustrate the doers and shakers. I need a lot of facts before I can move forward in anything. That could be perceived as lack of trust, when it is merely the way God wired me. I LOVE people and I LOVE helping them find those strengths (using the Leading From Your Strengths profiles). And I really enjoy connecting people together. That said,I have been known to say, "I'm peopled-out". That is when I KNOW it is time for some alone time/solitude, to refresh my soul for further ministry.

  3. Thanks for your post! I have a lot of trouble with the false dichotomy surrounding introversion and extroversion (as you say, most people carry a mix of traits and inclinations).

    I found that when I began using the Big Five model of personality rather than the Meyers-Briggs model, I had an easier time. They start at a baseline of zero on all of five traits (Extroversion, Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). Extroversion on this scale measures how much external stimulation people seek (everyone has a score - we all seek some sort of external stimulation, even hermits), and the traits we most commonly refer to as positive introverted traits are pretty much grouped under conscientiousness (detail orientation, planned behavior, focus and analysis). On this scale, someone could theoretically score high on both items, and be both extroverted and introverted (something that Meyers-Briggs doesn't allow). This made a lot of sense to me, since I always score exactly in the middle on Meyers-Briggs, though I am certainly not neutral in either of these areas - I just have a mix of traits that's not adequately described as either introverted or extroverted as they define them.
    I think what resonates with me is the recognition that no two traits are really ever mutually exclusive - not all "extroverted" people are socially competent, for example, and not all "introverted" people are detail oriented in any sort of useful way. I think it's rare to find someone who's skilled in all areas, but I don't think it's impossible to have someone who can be nuanced in social interactions AND provide a nuanced analysis during decision-making.
    For some people, introversion is a useful term - it has certainly helped you to identify your strengths and the ways that you can be useful as a leader, even though you aren't naturally driven to "charismatic" leadership situations. But maybe "conscientious" has less negative connotations for our stimulation driven society? Just food for thought :)

    1. Thanks, Emily, for this analysis. I'll have to check out that alternate personality test as I am not familiar with it. I do like the emphasis on more nuance and the multiple traits that exist within one unique person. What I don't like is the way Conscientious, for instance, suggests the negative in someone else. For me at least, introversion and extroversion are neutral terms. But then, they probably aren't neutral terms for most people. I've always heard them explained as where you get your energy from rather than whether you like people or not.

    2. I can see where you might get that impression about Conscientious, but the nice thing about this scale is that every person has some of every trait. I might have less Agreeableness than I have Extroversion, but I have some of both, and I can access both to different extents if the situation calls for it.

      I had always heard Introversion and Extroversion explained as the type and amount of stimulation you seek - extroverts are more comfortable with multiple sources of stimulation at once, introverts tend to work with one source at a time. An extrovert can do solo work, but will do so with the TV and Radio on, while an introvert would approach the same task with silence. This also applies to people (each person is his or her own source of stimulation), so extroverts are more comfortable interacting with groups while introverts are more comfortable with one person at a time (a prospect that can be quite stressful for an extreme extrovert). So, yes, I guess technically they are neutral, but I think that a lot of people haven't thoroughly thought about the terms themselves, and have just absorbed the connotations, which aren't always neutral.

      I think really, it's just hard to talk about innate personality and strengths and weaknesses without bias. You've done a fairly good job of it, and it's good to get the conversation out there about what this all means in the practical business of community.

  4. Excellent thoughts, Rebecca. I agree with your thought process, and hope you are correct about Governor Romney. We most certainly need a good president.

    1. Thanks, Ellen. I don't mean to suggest that President Obama is a bad president or a bad man. Actually, I think in my head I was more thinking of leadership traits in a President in general.

      I think the thing that will be best for our country is if we have a COUPLE of really good people, one from each party, running against each other. It elevates the process, I believe.

  5. This is interesting. I thought it was really interesting the way you perceive Romney as an introvert. I don't see him as socially awkward at all, or unable to charm people... Of all the "personas" I think he looks and acts the part more than anyone! In fact, when I see him in debates and hear him talk I keep thinking, he reminds me of someone out of the movies! What is that movie about the President who falls in love with that lady with the short hair??? That's the one he reminds me of!

    1. Kati, you may well be right as you have probably been able to evaluate him more due to being part of the Iowa caucuses. This is just my perception from the news coverage. I could be wrong.

      I think the movie is The American President with Martin Sheen and Annette Bening.

  6. Haha. I knew you'd probably know the movie. Yes, I believe that's the one. Romney is so handsome and his voice even sounds like that guy.

  7. This is a really good post and excellent food for thought as witnessed by the very good comments you have on it.

    I have always struggled with who I was and how I was to be; sometimes I have been an extrovert, and sometimes I have been an introvert, and at other times a mixed-up version of both! Having depression on and off hasn't helped here much either. Some people are naturally more extrovert and can talk to anyone, and others are more shy and retiring and will happily sit in a corner on their own. At times, I have been like these two traits. As a middle aged man now, I tend to be friendly to all but prefer to be, not cool or stand-offish, just a little reserved. Like you, I am extremely happy in my own company and can find a thousand things to do on my own. But, I like having a laugh with my mates now and again too! I think God will help us find a place where we are comfortable with what we are; none of us are stereotypes after all!

    Thanks for posting.


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