Sunday, August 24, 2008

The introverted leader

During the course of my two years attending Discovery Christian Church in Davis, I had the chance on several occasions to eat lunch with the pastors, namely Aaron Brockett and John Richert.

I still remember the most surprising thing that Aaron ever mentioned to me. He said that a lot of the leaders at Discovery, himself and John included, were natural introverts. From the outside, it seemed that they were anything but.

They greeted people left and right, confidently gave their sermons, and coordinated the big picture very smoothly. One of the things that caught my attention at the beginning, and subsequently hooked me in to attending regularly, was how the services on Sunday were so well-run.

As for me, I have found that I am quite happy to be a follower, unless there is a leadership vacuum — either no leadership at all, or very poor leadership. To be fair, I've found that very poor leadership can come from both extroverts and introverts.

In extroverts, the leadership pitfalls have to do with the tendency to make decisions without thinking very hard about them; not being aware of how everyone else feels; or not stopping to ask what everyone else thinks.

With introverts, what I've observed includes the lack of dynamism to keep everyone interested; indecisiveness while trying too hard or too long to build a consensus; and a lack of forcefulness.

Being the introvert that I am, I naturally got to thinking. What, I asked myself, can I do to leverage my natural strengths while avoiding the pitfalls of my natural weaknesses?

My natural strengths are things which come easily to me: thoroughness in exploring issues; attention to detail and a concern for total correctness; and having a passion for learning new things on my own, which makes it easy to become knowledgeable in various areas. I see these kinds of traits as "hard-wired" where my thirst for knowledge or obsession with detail give rise to good things. Like a microprocessor is hard-wired to perform basic operations like addition and subtraction, I'm hard-wired to do certain things because I'm comfortable with them and I know how to do them.

But the desirable traits that extroverts possess that I don't have — outspokenness, dynamism, gregariousness, forcefulness — I have to run them in emulation mode. I have to figure out some software to run on what's hard-wired in me so that I can do pretty much the same thing. Software operations are slower and require more instructions than hardware-level instructions. If we're going to continue carrying our analogy over to people, this means that I've got to put more effort into expressing qualities that are generally characteristic of natural extroverts.

But it's possible to do so, and this is good news.

For the introvert, it just takes a lot of piecing together. For example, the extrovert can just "be forceful," while the introvert has several mental steps to take. First, he must recognize that forcefulness will be necessary to avoid wasting everyone's time, and it's better for everyone. Then, he must double-check that the position he is strongly advocating is correct, because he knows his confidence in a position relies on knowing that it is as correct as can be, given all the data. Then there's recognizing that the best that anybody can do is make a decision based on all available information, and that's really the most that we can do. There is no sense in second-guessing since more information is not available. Finally, there's actually saying what needs to be said, or acting out what needs to be done. This requires a conscious mental step for the natural introvert.

As anyone can see, it can be much more involved for an introvert to display extroverted qualities, but it is possible. Over time, the basic behaviors can be optimized and moved a little closer to being hard-wired, just as software can be extracted into microcode to sit somewhere between software and hardware. This way it runs more quickly and more readily, with less effort.

There's one last thing before I completely beat the dead horse of this analogy: even though things done in hardware run much more quickly than those which are run at the software level, the software level allows for much more richness and flexibility. What does this mean for natural introverts who are looking to be effective leaders?

My very introverted answer is that I don't know; I'm still trying to find out.

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