The gist: Most introverts face these five challenges on the journey to build their leadership skills. Each one can be overcome with a unique approach.
Giving a singular voice to a group of people is hard work. Finding the little things that make people tick and motivating them toward a common goal is equally difficult. Those are big leadership challenges.
If you’re an introvert with big ideas, you must be up to the task. Your natural, introverted skills will propel you and your team forward, but you’ll also struggle with some fundamental challenges that keep you from stepping into a leadership role in the first place.
We’re always on the lookout for new research and ideas to help you capitalize on your natural strengths and succeed as an introverted leader.
Recently, we asked our readers, “What’s the #1 thing that holds you back from taking on more leadership roles?” From the hundreds of responses, we were able to categorize them into five primary roadblocks:
- Self-doubt. You’re unsure of your own leadership skills.
- Trouble being perceived as a leader. You may be confident, but others don’t see you as their leader.
- A lack of leadership skills. You know you don’t have the skills you need, and you’re not sure how to get them.
- Feeling inauthentic. You hesitate to lead because it doesn’t feel natural.
- No time / energy to lead. You’re already doing too much and you’re too tired to take on the responsibility.
If any of those answers sound familiar to you, then keep reading. We’ve assembled a complete guide to recognizing and fixing each of these roadblocks to leadership in yourself.
The world needs more introverted leaders, and you can become one of them—quietly affecting the lives of those around you for the better.
Leadership Challenge #1: Overcoming Leadership Self-Doubt
Stepping on stage at the 2010 D8 technology conference, Mark Zuckerberg is bracing himself for a challenging interview. Controversies about Facebook’s privacy settings are running rampant and the interviewers are circling like sharks.
As a young, introverted leader, public speaking is Zuckerberg’s well-known weakness, and talking about such a sensitive topic with a large audience is hardly comfortable. He tries to seem confident, but sweat shines on his face and the self-doubt is surely coursing through his mind.
The questions start simple, but when he attempts to deflect the suggestion that he doesn’t care about privacy, they bring up careless messages he sent in college.
Try not to cringe when the interviewer asks Mark if he needs to take off his hoodie:
Reminded of mistakes he made years ago, Zuckerberg nervously shifts the interview toward the positive steps Facebook is making. After all, with cameras rolling he has to keep talking, even if it means repeating answers the interviewers aren’t satisfied with.
Following the event, tech bloggers mocked Zuckerberg’s performance. Some focused on his awkwardness while others suggested he lacked the maturity to be Facebook’s long-term CEO. The negative feedback was enough to damage anyone’s self-confidence.
If the founder of one of the web’s most successful sites can struggle with self-doubt, surely it’s something nearly anyone can experience. And over 40% of you reported it as the top roadblock pursuing your leadership goals.
Everyone battles self-doubt at some point. You’ll never do anything perfectly and it’s natural to compare yourself to people who are more skilled, intelligent, charismatic, etc. than you. So, what to do?
The difference between those who meet their leadership goals and those who don’t has nothing to do with unlimited confidence. Rather, goals are achieved by people, like Zuckerberg, who refuse to allow their insecurities to stop them from stepping up and accomplishing their leadership goals. They feel self-doubt, and they take action anyway.
Realistically, you may never be completely confident in yourself. That’s why the goal isn’t to eliminate self-doubt; it’s to learn to take action in spite of it.
The difference between those who meet their leadership goals and those who don’t has nothing to do with unlimited confidence.
Solution: Adopt the Growth Mindset to Overcome Self-Doubt
Research conducted by Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck determined that, in terms of self-perception, people can be broadly categorized into two groups: those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset. Which category you fall into determines whether you allow your lack of self-confidence to defeat you or you challenge yourself to overcome your weaknesses.
Faced with a growing number of public speaking responsibilities, Zuckerberg had two choices: accept that he was a terrible speaker (fixed mindset) or use his embarrassing failure as an opportunity to improve (growth mindset).
In the fixed mindset, you believe your talent, intelligence, personality, etc. are natural and cannot be changed. Having this mindset encourages a lack of self-confidence because you believe you can’t improve.
If Zuckerberg had a fixed mindset, he would have accepted his awkward public speaking. Likewise, if you’re an introvert who struggles with being too quiet or you lack strong social skills, you would never strive for goals that involve being outgoing.
Then there’s the growth mindset:
With the growth mindset, you believe talent, intelligence, and abilities can be learned. Because of this, you are confident in your ability to accomplish your leadership goals, not because you have the abilities but because you believe you can develop them.
With the growth mindset, you believe talent, intelligence, and abilities can be learned.
Instead of accepting his awkwardness, Zuckerberg sought mentorship from colleagues who taught him how to become a more effective public speaker.
The key to the growth mindset is to focus your energy on working towards who you can become tomorrow rather than criticizing who you are today. When you do this, you can let go of some of your self-doubt because all your insecurities—timidness, awkwardness, incompetence, etc.—no longer define you because you’re taking actions to overcome them.
Here are few examples:
- Doubt you’re smart enough? Read books or take a course to boost your knowledge. Riskology offers a number of leadership training courses specifically for introverts.
- Lack social confidence? Learn how to improve your social skills so you can build stronger connections and grow your career.
- Feel like everything you do is doomed to fail? Choose something small you’re likely to succeed in and grow from there. For example, if you want to become a professional writer, start by writing guest articles for small publications that have low competition and a style like yours. After you’ve been published a few times, you’ll have the confidence and experience to try for bigger platforms.
You get the point. Your goal is to act on your sources of self-doubt so that they no longer control you. That’s what the pros do.
Leadership Challenge #2: Becoming Perceived as a Leader
Today, you rarely hear about Zuckerberg’s days as an awkward leader. What changed? How did he go from fumbling through interviews to being one of the most influential leaders in the tech world?
The simple answer: lots of feedback.
With his reputation in dire need of repair after the D8 interview, Zuckerberg turned to the one person he knew could give him honest and valuable social advice, Sheryl Sandberg.
Unlike Zuckerberg, Sandberg is charismatic, extroverted, and excels at many of the socially oriented leadership responsibilities Zuckerberg struggles with.
Following the conference, she watched the interview with him, noting things he did well and areas he could improve. As someone naturally good with social cues, Sandberg gave him pointers he wouldn’t think of on his own.
Getting feedback from others is critical because psychological studies show we’re not very good at assessing ourselves. Most people are blinded by the cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect which prevents you from accurately judging your abilities, especially in comparison to others.
So, if you struggle with questions like…
- How do I build a better reputation?
- How do I get others to follow me?
- Why don’t people notice the contributions I’m making?
…then you need a Sheryl Sandberg in your life with the social skills you lack and who will give you the feedback you need to build a better reputation and become perceived as a leader.
It could be a friend, a colleague—whoever—as long as they’re someone who sees how you interact with others.
Ask them to look for common issues:
- Displaying nervous behavior like talking quickly and playing with your hands.
- Avoiding eye contact or facing people when you talk to them which makes you look passive and disinterested.
- Using a tone, facial expression, or language that’s either too serious or too passive making you come across as intimidating or weak.
Often, you don’t realize you have these habits, and they could be primary reasons people don’t see you as a leader. Once you have someone to make you aware of them, you can start taking action to stop them.
Improving the way you present yourself to others will take time. Zuckerberg and Sandberg still meet regularly to discuss ways for him to improve his interpersonal leadership skills. However, getting regular feedback is one of the most effective ways to develop the social skills you need to build a reputation as a leader.
While you work on getting feedback, here are some quick improvements you can use to start making better impressions today:
- Display open body language. Don’t cross your arms, face people when you speak to them, and relax so you don’t look too tense. This makes you more approachable.
- Smile. It’s an easy way to show people you’re friendly, especially if you’re often labeled “too serious.”
- Show genuine interest in people. Ask them questions and remember details about them. Doing so builds trust because people will know you care about them.
Leadership Challenge #3: Quickly Developing Your Leadership Skills
You might be thinking, “Sure, Zuckerberg is a rich genius. Of course he was able to improve himself. But what about me?”
Remember that Zuckerberg succeeded in spite of his awkwardness. He made it a long way dragging that anchor and made it even further when he started to overcome it. That should give you some assurance that 1) you don’t have to be perfect to be a great leader and 2) you can improve regardless where you stand now.
The skills that make a leader great are just that, skills. And the thing about skills is that they can be developed.
The third most common response when we asked “What’s holding you back from being a leader” was a lack of leadership skills. You didn’t feel like you were innately gifted with the time management, interpersonal, or other skills you think leaders excel at.
Lucky for you, though, perception is far from reality in this case. The skills that make a leader great are just that, skills. And the thing about skills is that they can be developed.
We don’t have to look far to find an example, either. Here’s Tyler, founder of Riskology on his journey:
When I started Riskology, I had (what I thought was) a good idea and absolutely no idea how to accomplish it. In fact, I had even less than that. I had little experience in the writing field and no network of influential people to help me launch it.But I did it anyway. It took a long time, a lot of hard work, and some moments of questioning if it was ever going to work out (I still ask myself this from time to time. Entrepreneurs are paranoid.) yet here we are.
I think there were two things I did—and continue to do—that set us up for success:
- I admitted when I didn’t know what I was doing and asked for help. There is a wealth of knowledge and help in the world. If you’re too proud to ask for it, you’ll struggle unnecessarily.
- I worked really hard to develop relationships. As an introvert, it was hard to step out and start trying to build friendships and grow my network. But once I did, I realized how much I enjoyed it and that I was actually pretty good at it. Those relationships I built (and continue to build) make me feel connected to a bigger purpose and give me an incredible support system.
Being a leader is always going to be challenging because reaching your potential and building up your skills is hard work. If it doesn’t feel like hard work, you’re probably doing a lot less than you’re actually capable of.
Becoming a better leader is more about discipline and practice than it is about natural ability. When Tyler started Riskology, he didn’t have any of the skills needed to operate this site the way it operates today. He built them over time and Riskology grew as his skills developed and he found new ways to put them to use.
If you commit to learning the skills of strong leadership, you will become a strong leader. There’s nothing magical about it.
So, how do you develop these skills?
Find experts who are succeeding at what you want to do.
Say you’re an app developer, and you want to do more than just code new games for the rest of your life. You want to change the way developers build useful things and the way people interact with their devices.
To do that, you’ll need to learn some new skills. Luckily, there are a lot of people who already have them who you can learn from. You might start by asking, “Who are the people responsible for app development working the way it does right now?”
Answering that question will tell you who led people like you to where they are today. They have the skills you need.
Now that you know who to pay attention to, it’s time to learn from them.
If you commit to learning the skills of strong leadership, you will become a strong leader. There’s nothing magical about it.
We live in an age of unprecedented access to people and information. Many of the world’s greatest leaders in every industry and niche—no matter how small—has a Twitter feed, a blog, or some other type of outlet where you can get a deeper insight into who they are and how they think. Some even answer their own email. Take advantage of this!
Most people read something and focus only on the content. As you read this article, you’re likely thinking about how you can put the words on the screen to use in your life. That’s fine. That’s what this article is for.
But it’s a mistake to read a thought leader’s words this way. To develop into a great leader, you need to do more than parrot what another leader says. You need to get inside their head.
As you read the work of these influential people, look for clues about why they think the things they do. What thought process lead them to their conclusion?
That’s what you need to mimic. Thought processes. Great leaders have unique and useful ways of thinking. If you train yourself to think like they do—not to have the same thoughts but to approach problems in the same way—you will immensely grow your leadership skills.
You can apply this to anything in your life whether you want to be the next president of your country or you want to be a food blogger.
Leadership Challenge #4: Becoming an Authentic Leader
Whether you’re a middle manager at a huge conglomerate or the leader of a small community group, many of you reported struggling with leadership because you don’t have the sociable, larger-than-life personality you think you need to lead. Some of you said you pretend to have it to meet your leadership goals, which feels inauthentic because you’re trying to be someone you’re not. Others said they don’t try to be a leader at all because of it.
Time to Redefine Leadership
To overcome this roadblock, a change of definition is in order. Leadership is not about being a loud, charismatic person who walks into a room and attracts attention. Instead, a leader is someone who influences others. It’s as simple as that.
We know this intuitively, but it’s hard to believe when most examples of leadership in popular culture come in the form of gregarious extroverts.
We know this to be true but still wondered, “How can introverts feel authentic in positions typically filled by extroverts?”
To answer the question, we asked James Abruzzo, the director of the Institute of Ethical Leadership at Rutgers business school, what his advice is for introverts who struggle to feel comfortable in leadership roles.
He told us “As an introverted individual, you can become very depressed and self-defeating if you believe that you need to be extroverted to be a leader. So that’s the first thing—understand that concept. You do not need to be extroverted to lead people, and you do not need to be extroverted for people to follow you. You have to firmly believe that.”
A leader is someone who influences others. It’s as simple as that.
Abruzzo suggests that if you struggle with authenticity, focus on embracing your strengths as an introverted leader—being more methodical, visionary, communicating clearly in writing, etc. This way, you’ll be able accomplish your leadership goals not by being the loudest person in the room but instead by being the go-to person for what you want to lead and for being the person who inspires the highest quality results.
Leaders Step out of Their Comfort Zones
While you don’t need to act like an extrovert to be a strong leader, you do need to step out of your comfort zone.
In our interview, Abruzzo told us about one of his employees. She was brilliant, but no one knew it because she was so quiet—too timid to share her gift. At every meeting, she would carefully listen to what everyone else shared. She had a great ideas the team needed, but rarely spoke up.
When a meeting was over, she’d go back to her desk and do incredible work that drove the organization forward, but her colleagues were blind to her contributions and didn’t see her as an integral member of their team. It’s a perfect example of the leadership challenges many of you told us you face. Because she was quiet and reserved no one looked to her as a leader.
Abruzzo recognized her skills, though. He told her, “you need to speak up when you have an idea you care about, even if it makes you uncomfortable.” Other’s can’t always tell the difference between standoffishness and contemplation. You could be deep in thought about something your co-worker just said but if you’re staring back at them blankly, they could be reading it as rejection or confusion.
Effective leadership isn’t about pretending to be an extrovert and trying to engage with everyone all the time. It’s about guiding a group to a positive place.
There are two rules you can follow that will help you step out of your comfort zone and better communicate with your team:
- Share your idea within 3 seconds. The “three second rule” is popular in the pickup artist / dating community. Men who are timid to talk to women are encouraged to approach someone and introduce themselves within three seconds. This keeps them from spending too much time thinking about what to say and take action before the opportunity passes. You can do the same in meetings. When you have an idea, share it within three seconds of the next opening.
- Communicate your thought process. If you need time to ponder, say so. “That’s an interesting idea. I need to run it over in my head for a minute before I can share something useful. You guys keep going while I think for a moment.” If it feels strange to tell people you’re thinking, that’s normal. But it also communicates expectations and interest. When others know why you’re silent, they’ll see you as more of a team player.
Effective leadership isn’t about pretending to be an extrovert and trying to engage with everyone all the time. It’s about guiding a group to a positive place. That means communicating effectively on the projects you want to lead.
As you become more comfortable with your own voice, you’ll feel (and be perceived) more authentic.
Leadership Challenge #5: Building Time (and Energy) to Lead in Your Schedule
For years, Sheila Lirio Marcelo, the founder of Care.com, and mother of two, tried to be super-mom/entrepreneur extraordinaire. She made it her goal to attend all of her kids’ activities while rapidly expanding the breadth and quality of her company’s services.
Eventually though, she had so many responsibilities she started to burn out. Her days were so packed that she had no time to relax and her energy levels were waning fast.
Can you relate? Many of you said you want to be a leader but you don’t have the time or the energy to pursue your leadership goals. We get it!
If being overwhelmed by day-to-day stress is preventing you from pursuing your leadership goals, these two exercises will help you out of that rut.
Instantly Create More Time by Planning
Yeah, you’ve heard it before. It’s tired advice. But we’re going to beat it into your head again because it works and it’s backed by science.
If you feel like you’re constantly racing against the clock, it’s time to stop rushing from task to task and start planning. Studies from the book, The Psychology of Planning in Organizations, found that people who used time management strategies were more focused and less tired than those who didn’t plan their days.
Why? If you don’t plan your days, you live in a reactive state where all you do is respond to demands. That’s stressful and wastes time because you rarely consider how important the tasks you do are. So, you end up doing a lot of things that don’t matter instead of investing your energy in the tasks that create the highest value.
The key to saving time by planning is learning how to prioritize. Every day, make a to-do list and rank items in order of importance. As much as possible, plan your day using that order of events.
Research shows people who use time management strategies are more focused and less tired than those who don’t plan their days.
A simple way to gauge importance is to ask yourself: “If I don’t do this immediately, what are the consequences?” If they’re severe, those are the tasks to do first. If they’re not, then the task either doesn’t need to be done or can wait until the end of the day when you’re tired.
When Marcelo stopped trying to be super mom/entrepreneur and started prioritizing the tasks vital to the success and happiness of her family and business, that’s when she became truly super because she had more time to do things well rather than trying to get a million things partly finished.
Likewise, you can use this strategy to eliminate unnecessary work and use your extra time to pursue your leadership goals whether it’s to start a community group, grow a blog, or invest in professional development so you can get a promotion at work.
Exercise to Feel More Energized
Along with learning to prioritize her responsibilities, Marcelo clawed back some much-needed energy in her life by spending time taking care of herself.
If you want to boost your energy levels, the best form of self-care you can engage in is exercise. This might sound counter-intuitive but the science shows it works. The University of Georgia analyzed the results of 70 independent studies on fatigue and over 90% of them found that exercise increases your energy levels.
The University of Georgia analyzed the results of 70 independent studies on fatigue and over 90% of them found that exercise increases your energy levels.
You might ignore this suggestion because you think you don’t have the time or energy to exercise, but wouldn’t you like to know what it feels like to have more energy to begin with? Sure your first few weeks may be hard, but after that you’ll start feeling the positive effects.
Many of the busiest and most powerful leaders in the world including Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook exercise six days a week. Richard Branson swears his daily workouts give him an extra four hours of productivity every day. If anything, you don’t have the time or energy not to exercise.
Wrapping Up: Quick Tips to Become a Strong, Introverted Leader
We’ve covered a lot of ground, and we hope this helps you overcome the barriers you face in becoming a stronger leader in your own life. The concepts and action items have helped countless influencers around the world throughout history, so we’re certain they can help you, too.
There’s a lot to remember, so here’s a quick list of tips to keep in mind as you move forward.
- Adopt the growth mindset and stop letting your weaknesses define you.
- Team up with someone who can help you change your behavior to be more personable.
- Invest time to learn new skills so you have what it takes to lead others.
- Capitalize on your strengths as an introverted leader and make your voice heard.
- Prioritize and exercise to create more time and energy to put towards your leadership goals.
You won’t take on all these challenges today, but you don’t need to either. The path to success is paved with many small stones. Think of yourself as a brick layer. What brick can you cement into place today?