Meek is not the first word anyone would use to describe me. And yet, I identify as an introvert. Famous introvert Glennon Doyle once crawled inside of my brain and wrote: “I am a sensitive, introverted woman, which means that I love humanity but actual human beings are tricky for me. I love people but not in person. For example, I would die for you but not, like…meet you for coffee.”
She is me.
What are we to do, then, when we figure out who we are, and that person isn’t the type who likes to put themselves out there? What if playing bigger and making our own luck just isn’t our natural state?
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If you are an avowed introvert—or you just feel shy about putting yourself out there in some new way—you’re not alone. One third to one half of us are introverts, according to Susan Cain, the author of Quiet. But when it comes to our professional lives, somehow we all get the message that we’re supposed to be outgoing and uninhibited.
“Introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions,” Cain says in her TED Talk, “even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsize risks—which is something we might all favor nowadays.” Whereas extroverts more often put their own stamp on things, introverts can deliver superior outcomes because they are far more likely to give employees the freedom to run with fresh, diverse ideas.
Introverts and extroverts need each other. What’s more, the world needs us both. And we don’t have to be just one or the other; being introspective or wary at times is just as natural as being a live wire. But if you’re hesitant to step out of the shadows and show your truest self, remember that your inclination toward introversion often means you listen more and see more. You are probably more patient than other people. And you typically lead not out of ego, but out of the desire to build a better future.
Some of the most admired leaders through history—from Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt to Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks—were introverts whose behavior did not conform to expectations. But being an introvert has a special power and worth of its own, Cain points out. “These leaders were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others, and not out of the pleasure of being looked at,” she continues. “They were there because they had no choice, because they were driven to do what they thought was right.” This drive to do the right thing sometimes compels introverts to act like situational extroverts, playing the part of a showboat and reaping all the benefits that this outward-facing personality brings.
As someone who makes my living on the stage and in front of the camera, and who has learned to be unapologetic about who I am under that spotlight, I have a weird confession to make: I still hate center stage.
In fact, there is nowhere I’d rather be than stage left.
I spent the earliest part of my career working as a campaign staffer, helping get Bill Clinton elected president of the United States. I spent the next part of my career in the White House building AmeriCorps, which would enable more than a million young people to earn stipends for their college education while making their community a better place. Then I went into mission-driven executive search, where my job was to find incredible people and put them in positions where they could help make the world a better place.
Every one of those was a stage-left job—even the last one, where for 15 years, I was the founder and CEO of a global executive search firm. Although I was often in the spotlight, it was my job to identify and amplify others, whether by recruiting incredible talent or as chief champion of my employees. Even in moments when I was forced to take center stage as CEO, I always redirected the spotlight to others, where it more aptly belonged.
I liked it there at stage left. It felt like home. Not only had I studied, recruited, stewarded, and coached leaders for the previous 20 years, but my first boss and mentor in the White House was Eli Segal, a man who never saw his name in the headlines, yet shaped history from the sidelines. Eli was a consummate stage-left leader—mild-mannered, not splashy—the sort who would be easy to underestimate. But he had a vision of the way the world should be, and he worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make it so. From a young idealist on Eugene McCarthy’s failed 1968 bid for president to chief of staff on Bill Clinton’s winning 1992 campaign, Eli was always making deals, connecting people, but never seeking the limelight.
After Eli’s death, The New York Times dedicated a full page to his obituary. Memorials took place in Boston and Washington, D.C. Senator Ted Kennedy gave the eulogy, saying, “There are over a thousand of you here today. Every one of you thinks that you were either Eli’s best friend or Eli’s very good friend…and every one of you is right.” Eli wasn’t the out-front leader, but people followed him everywhere.
Our conventional idea of leadership demands that the more we succeed, the more we get pushed to center stage—even if we don’t like it there. We are thrust to the head of the table, when really the relationships and networking happen elsewhere. We are asked to speak more, so we end up listening less. This idealized, one-size-fits-all construct actually constructs worse leaders.
It is exhausting to be someone else. It’s untenable. And it’s never going to get you to the person you’re meant to be.
Your leadership should look like you—a combination of your skills, interests, and energy, not to mention your quirks, moxie, and special brand of awkward. This might mean you occupy center stage sometimes, either literally or just metaphorically. But find a way to thrive there on your own terms, rejoicing in that moment as a lever to accomplish something even bigger. The spotlight may be on you, but the people you love, the causes you serve, and the businesses you build are the true stars of the show.
From Wonderhell: Why Success Doesn’t Feel Like It Should…and What to Do About It, by Laura Gassner Otting. Courtesy of Ideapress Publishing.