Five Habits of an Introverted Leader

30 September 2015 by Mathias Meyer

Being an introverted person in a leadership position is challenging. The one thing that exhaust you the most is now your main focus, interacting with people.

Personally, I didn’t fully realize that I have introverted tendencies until I read the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking”. I’d considered myself shy before then, feeling awkward trying to strike up smalltalk conversations, even just talking to other people, and constantly feeling a need to hide in quiet places to get away from chatter and to focus on my own thoughts.

I chalked it all up to being shy, and it left me in an uncomfortable position. Am I confident enough that I can pull out the relevant skills to be the CEO of an entire company, especially the people part?

Since then, I identified a few routines that helped me balance the needs of being in a leadership position with my introverted nature.

Read every day

Reading has become a very important part of my day and my progression from trying to get a startup off the ground to taking on the role of leading said startup as it matured.

Books have played an important part in helping me shape my own thinking about what I’d like our company to be, and about what I’d like to become. They’ve helped me narrow down on a few problems and helped me focus on solutions for them.

Beyond that, taking time to read is also time to reflect. A lot of books I’ve read have given me one or two key realizations about what I need to improve, what I’m doing well, and what our company can do differently. That one spark is worth reading an entire book for me.

For the introvert in me, reading is quiet time. I usually read first thing in the day, before I do anything else, and before the noise of the day starts crowding my mind, distracting it from the focus required to read.

Take long walks

I started taking walks after I read “Thinking, Fast & Slow”, which was a revelatory book for me, in terms of understanding myself, our customers and my team. Did I mention that reading is amazing, and that you should read every day?

Throughout the day, your brain is busy processing information, impressions, conversations, and adding to that, you’re trying to get it to focus on the work that needs to get done. Giving into this feeling of constant busyness is a downward spiral, leading to even more work, feeling stressed out, and emotionally exhausted.

For me, this ends up with work trickling into my personal life, be it by keeping my mind busy with work topics when I get home or on weekends, or affecting my moods at home.

Beyond reading, the best medium I’ve found to let those thoughts loose is to go on walks. Not just 20 minutes walks, but up to an hour. I walk at a relaxes speed and without any particular place in mind that I want to go. When you walk towards something, your mind is focused on that, and it doesn’t free up mental capacity to think and process. When you walk too fast, you may notice similar things.

I prefer to walk on familiar paths, a sort of roundtrip through the neighborhood, if you will.

After a while, magic happens. My head stops being overly busy, all those thoughts quiet down, and it feels like my head is a lot more responsive to giving it small triggers, like “I wonder what I could write about next?”, or much broader than that, “Containers?” Even small triggers suddenly leave my mind to wander around the topic, looking at different angles, maybe even finding a conclusion. It feels like magic.

Walking, all by myself, has turned out to be an important tool in processing information collected throughout the day, week and month, and working on extracting the patterns, the bigger picture, and what I could do about them.

Schedule time away from the office

As a leader, it’s likely you have a strong urge to always be around your team, being ready to jump in and help them at any time. You may also experience the fear of missing out, always wondering and curious what’s going on in your team, in team chat, and around the company.

That fear and the constant hovering adds to the emotional drain, contributing to a constant feeling of burnout, yet you feel guilty about not being there when your team needs you. It’s too hard to disconnect and focus on yourself and your own work, so that starts slipping and adds more to the constant state of busyness.

The above scenario isn’t an introvert’s problem, it’s the disease that our modern work day has become. In addition to feeling like I’m not progressing on my own work, this situation added to my own feeling of work topics trickling into my personal life, as little time was left to process all that information and recharge.

I started scheduling in weekly time away from the office, time that I spend in a coffee shop or elsewhere, noise-canceling headphones plugged in, working on bigger topics or just letting my mind wonder.

Initially, this didn’t feel like work, and I felt guilty, even selfish, for taking this time. But then I realized that I’m actually getting results from this time away from the office. It allows me to progress on important and bigger company topics, yet it gave me the isolated space that my introverted self needs to focus.

Taking walks, reading and spending time away from the office have become important stop gaps for me. They give me the time and space to process, recharge, figure out the bigger picture and come up with solutions for problems a crowded brain might not otherwise be able to extract.

Write every day

I sometimes struggle forming thoughts into concrete sentences when I talk to people. Part of that is because I’m having trouble forming a complete picture in my head, which I feel I need before I can say something. This reflects in how I approach thinking about bigger company topics as well. I need time and space to form my own opinions on things, and there is one tool that’s been the greatest help for me in this, writing.

I try to write, every day. Whether it’s working on a blog post, whether it’s writing an internal proposal, a summary of a call I’ve just had with someone to send around to the team, or simply writing a journal.

I’ve done the latter every day for almost two years now, and it’s become an essential part of my every day work. I’m using Day One whose reminders pop up multiple times throughout the day to help me capture what I’m thinking. Longer prose also goes into Day One at times, as some situations warrant a longer thought process, which is effectively reflected in what I write. For anything else, I’ve started trying out Ulysses, before I’ve used NValt and Byword for writing. I enjoy the simplicity of a full screen app with just a cursor.

It doesn’t really matter what tool you’re using, what matters is that you get beyond that moment of utter fear instilled by a blank screen with a blinking cursor on it and just write down what’s on your mind.

Writing requires me to focus, and it allows me to make sense of all the noise in my head. It’s my one outlet of processing all the information I collect, consciously or not, throughout the day.

Take your time in making decisions, but follow up on them

I need time to process information, to figure out any patterns and to come to my own conclusion on it. That process can involve writing, thinking, walking or listening to more opinions, gathering more insight from our diverse team.

That can sometimes be frustrating for others, especially when they want to move forward with something quickly. There are situations where I can just say “Sounds good.” and trust them with all my heart.

In other situations, I make a commitment to get back to them in a certain amount of time. The more you define that amount of time and keep your commitment, the more trust you can build with people over time. When they know that you do follow up and keep your own commitments, they’ll get more used to this being your mode of making decisions.

I found those two to be a good balance between making sure things don’t get stalled all the time and my own need for thinking things through a bit longer before I can come to a conclusion.

Beyond reading, writing, walking and spending time at the office, I’ve started meditating daily to try and tackle another issue I’ve mentioned earlier. Oftentimes I find my mind thinking about work things when I’m at home. I get distracted playing with my daughter, reading a book to her or over dinner, and I have an immediate urge to work on the thing I just thought about. I found that rather frustrating, and I’ve noticed that meditation helps me focus a lot more on the moment rather than have my mind wander endlessly.

What helps you foster your introverted nature as a leader? What helps you lead introverted people on your team? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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