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How to Thrive as an Introverted Leader


Extroverts tend to hog the spotlight, but you don’t have to be loud to make an impact

A women with laptop, yellow background
shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi

Think of a leader. Think of the way they show up. Does your mind conjure someone loud and outgoing? Someone charismatic and confident? Someone who seems more comfortable working a room, or addressing a crowd, or chairing a meeting, than most people feel on their couches in their jammies?  

Amanda Kwok wants you to think again.  

Kwok is a proud introvert. She is also the founder of Quiet Leader Co., a Toronto-based coaching firm that helps introverts lean into their strengths and thrive in a business world built for the loud and brash.  

Kwok chatted with Smith Business Insight contributor Deborah Aarts about her journey as an introvert, why introverts can be excellent leaders and what introverts can do to manage their energy — and make an impact.   

Let’s start with the basics: What does “introvert” mean to you?  

The term “introvert” was first coined by Carl Jung in the 1920s. He defined introverts as people who, effectively, gain energy from solitude rather than social interaction.   

Simon Sinek uses a visual that I really like: He says that an introvert wakes up in the morning with five coins. With every social interaction, they spend a coin, so by the end of the day, they feel depleted. Whereas an extrovert wakes up with no coins; with every social interaction they get a coin, so by the end of the day, they feel rich.  

And what does “introvert” not mean?  

There’s a common misconception that all introverts are shy and antisocial. That can be true of some introverts, but it can also be true of some extroverts and ambiverts. Shyness is actually about fear of other people’s judgment. It’s about social anxiety. Introversion is about energy. 

Tell me about your journey as an introvert. How did you discover it about yourself, and what did it make you feel?  

My early association with being an introvert was a feeling of shame around it, to be totally honest. I think I grew up feeling that I needed to be loud to be a good leader. That was modelled everywhere: At summer camp, where the loudest and most outgoing counsellors were the most popular; even at Queen’s University, where the extroverted students were usually chosen to be Frosh Week Bosses. [Kwok is a graduate of Smith School of Business at Queen’s.]  

The first time I did the Myers-Briggs assessment was during my Interpersonal Skills for Managers course at Queen’s. The results told me I’m an INFJ. I remember immediately feeling embarrassed. I regretted that I hadn’t answered the questions more like an extrovert would, because I literally viewed this introvert label as a character flaw. I thought it was a bad thing. I associated it with being socially awkward.   

You had a successful career in customer experience and technology before launching Quiet Leader Co. How did your then-complicated feelings about being an introvert affect your progression in the working world?  

It didn’t affect my ambition. What I lacked in volume I made up for in passion and vision, and because of that, I was able to land a number of leadership positions fairly early on. But I think it did affect my effectiveness as a leader — both in terms of my ability to make an impact and my ability to connect with my team. I’ve since come to realize I was less effective than I could have been, not because I am an introvert, but because I was trying so hard not to be an introvert.  

How did you figure that out?  

When I was 30, I was in a director-level role at a tech company, and I had to go through the process of a 360-degree review. The results were both painful and powerful. In some areas, my peers — other directors, vice-presidents — gave me really high scores. But my direct reports gave me really low ones, particularly when it came to forming caring relationships — the thing I care more about than anything in this world.  

When I saw that, it became really clear that I was showing up differently with different groups of people. I knew something had to change. It was a huge turning point.   

So what did you do differently?  

I gave myself the permission to just show up more fully with my team and to really lean into my authentic leadership style. Rather than try to connect with my whole team at a big social event, for example, I’d sit down with people, one-on-one, to check in and get to know them better.  

It made me realize that there’s power in embracing what comes naturally to me as an introvert, rather than feeling like I need to put on a more extroverted persona.  

Is that what fired you up to start working with other introverted leaders?  

Yes. I think so many introverts view their introversion as a glass ceiling. They can’t see themselves in a more senior leadership role because they think they need to be more extroverted to do that.   

My experience has been that in order to get to the next level, it’s not actually about being more extroverted. It’s about embracing your innate strengths and your authentic leadership style. So, my mission is now to help introverts feel like they belong in the boardroom — to show them they don’t need to be loud to be successful.  

Why do introverts question their suitability to lead?  

There’s a real misconception that extroverts make better leaders. The research is really interesting. It’s estimated that about 33 per cent to 50 per cent of the population is introverted. And yet most leaders — a commonly cited number is 96 per cent— report being extroverted. I think that number is skewed. We are conditioned to believe that leaders are assertive and charismatic and loud, so I think there are a ton of introverts who feel like they need to play the extrovert at work in order to be successful.   

I also think there is still a negative stigma around introversion. Most senior executives — 65 per cent, according to one poll — say it is a liability for leaders to be introverted. Other studies talk about how extroversion is the single most important trait for a leader to have. Now, I think things have changed a lot in the last 10 years, thanks in large part to Susan Cain, whose 2012 TED Talk, The Power of Introverts, and book, Quiet, helped change a lot of people’s understanding, including mine. But still, negative perceptions exist, so it’s no wonder that a lot of introverts feel like they need to hide their introversion in the workplace.   

While extroverts tend to be more likely to be interested in and selected for leadership roles, it doesn’t actually mean that they’re better leaders.  

What are some of the traits common to introverts that make them good leaders?  

Introverts tend to be very good listeners, but it goes beyond that — we tend to excel at observation at large. We don’t just hear what is said. We tend to surface what’s not being said, to pay attention to shifts in body language, or energy, or emotional cues.   

Introverts also tend to be methodical thinkers. We are prone to deep thinking and creative problem-solving. You just might not get our contributions in the moment, since we need time to process things, but when you do, they will be well-formed and thought out.  

In what kinds of situations is this type of leadership especially useful?  

Adam Grant did some really interesting research with two colleagues that looked at the leadership effectiveness of introverts and extroverts. They found that both introverts and extroverts were equally successful as leaders, but their success depended on the type of teams they were managing. Extroverts did better with teams that needed more direction and guidance. But introverts did better with proactive teams who actively voiced their opinions or ideas, and who needed less supervision. Because introverted leaders have a tendency to listen more carefully and be more receptive to group ideas, their teams feel more valued and more motivated to work harder.   

By definition, being a leader can be a draining gig, with an endless flow of meetings, presentations and decisions. What can introverted leaders do to better manage their energy?   

I think the biggest thing is to really own your needs as an introvert. Give yourself permission to do things differently, and don’t judge yourself for it. When things are draining, look for ways to change your approach to them to make them less so. Maybe write individual thank-you notes to your team, instead of giving a big, rousing speech at an all-hands meeting. Maybe ask for questions in advance so you have time to process your responses to an interview or panel or meeting.   

Another tactic is to find what author and professor Brian Little calls “restorative niches” in your work day — places that you can recharge your energy, places you go when you want to return to your true self. For me, my restorative niche is always getting out in nature, which I can’t always get to, but when I do, it helps a lot.    

Finally, make sure that you’re doing things that you truly enjoy. Burnout is not only caused by doing too much; it’s also often caused by doing too little of the things that light us up. It’s important, especially for introverts, to have projects and activities that really energize us.