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When Leadership Development Is a Bad Thing

I used to think I had to change to be a good leader. Now I see the strengths I had all along.

“How do you know?”

I can’t tell you know many times that question has stopped me cold. As a highly intuitive and introverted person, my favorite way of knowing is through my intuition. I naturally collect information without conscious reasoning, synthesize it behind the scenes, and come to a quick and convincing conclusion. The problem is intuition doesn’t come with hard evidence. When people challenged me to explain my conclusions, I often couldn’t do it.

Merriam-Webster’s simple definition of intuition is this: “a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence: a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why; something that is known or understood without proof or evidence.” This definition makes intuition sound a bit like magic, but it’s not based on pixie dust or hocus-pocus. It’s based on instinct, experience, knowledge, environmental input, and unconscious awareness of sensory stimuli.

Intuition is legitimate. And while relying on intuition is not always the best way to make a decision, sometimes it is.

After facing several challenges to my intuitive convictions in my professional life, I learned that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I had to back up my intuitive conclusions with empirical data. I had to use a slower process of logical reasoning—something I knew how to do, but didn’t always prefer. Ultimately this challenge was good for me, but the way I interpreted these incidents wasn’t.

I took professional challenges as signs of shortcomings, and I was determined to change my natural tendencies. This was just one more in a series of misunderstandings that had made me feel like a misfit throughout my life. I was a highly sensitive child, quiet and thoughtful, highly creative—and yes, intuitive—with a vibrant inner life. I longed for quiet places and space to think. I loved the arts, the outdoors, and spiritual conversations. I was a voracious reader and an enthusiastic writer, intensely interested in people but exhausted by crowds, an idealist who wanted to make the world a better place. When I was in a group, I listened first, then spoke. By the time I did, sometimes no one else was listening anymore.

I’m Not a Leader!

According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I’m an INFJ—the rarest type in American society. It was no wonder I often felt I didn’t belong; feeling like a misfit comes with the territory. In particular, my introversion and intuitive preference were often questioned, not rewarded. And I questioned them as much as anyone else, believing they were weaknesses to be overcome or changed.

I was a natural leader among my peers, but I never thought of myself that way until I was in college. In my mind, leaders were loud, outgoing, bold, charismatic, and politically savvy. That wasn’t me, but I kept finding myself in leadership roles—and even wanting them. I discovered I was good at leading people, and I received regular affirmation of my leadership gifts. So I figured if I wanted to be a better leader, I’d have to work on changing myself to be more like the leaders I had in mind. I wasn’t very good at being that person.

Thankfully, I soon found myself reporting to a leader who was great at seeing me and giving me permission to be myself. Then another, who encouraged me to delegate things to focus on what I was good at. It took me a while, but eventually I realized the only person I’m really good at being is myself and the qualities that come with my personality are my leadership strengths.

Ironically, the more comfortable I became being me, the more uncomfortable I was in my corporate leadership role. In time, I made a gutsy transition out of corporate life and into self-employment. I honored that quiet writer who had been sitting inside me all those years. I recognized the parts of leadership I was best suited for, and trained to be a coach. During my training, I finally fully embraced my personality as a set of real assets. This happened partly because the training itself pushed me for the sake of those who benefit from my work. And partly because I had found a leadership role where some of the most prized skills are—you guessed it—intuition and the kind of deep listening a person like me longs to do.

I’m not sure you could find anyone better suited to my life—self-employed writer, coach, prophetic speaker—than an introverted intuitive thinker like me. I lead from my strengths, and my favorite people to coach are creative leaders who themselves are ready for something new. I help them amplify their inner strength so they can take ownership of their life purpose, move forward, and live in truth. One of my favorite things is seeing people step into a fuller expression of who they were made to be. While I’m grateful for the skills I’ve developed by stretching beyond what comes most naturally to me, embracing my God-given personality has freed me to employ the upsides of both introversion and intuition in leadership.

What about you? Have you been working hard to overcome what you see as an inherent liability in your personality? What if you stopped trying and embraced who you are? In his book, Strengths Finder 2.0, Tom Rath wrote, “From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to fixing our shortcomings than to developing our strengths.” This is the problem that led to the development of the Strengths Finder assessment. He has a point when he says, “You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.”

While Strengths Finder is based on talents and skills, the same applies to personality. Investing in your personal growth is always worthwhile, but if you’re trying to fundamentally change the person God made you to be, you’re wasting your time. You’re also depriving the world of your unique characteristics. Quite frankly, we don’t need you to be any more like the rest of us. We need you to be you.

Amy Simpson is an inner strength coach, a popular speaker, and the award-winning author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission and Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (both InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com, on Facebook, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @aresimpson.

August22, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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