Hello, my name is Angie, and I am an introverted leader.
I confess that it took me many years to make that statement with boldness. For years I thought that to be a good leader, I had to be an extrovert. Most of the leaders I knew seemed to have boundless energy for people, and to be energized by them in return. I, on the other hand, would get tired, irritable, and impatient after extended time surrounded by people. I thought (and was sometimes indirectly given the message) that this was a character flaw on my part.
It took me years of trying (and failing) to be an extrovert, plus a season of burnout and depression, to realize what extroversion and introversion really are. And this allowed me to realize not only that my introversion was a strength, but that I could lead more effectively if I was mindful of my introversion.
Whether you’re extroverted or introverted by nature, I’d like to help you grow in your understanding of introversion and what it looks like in leadership and ministry. First, let’s define terms. Simply put, an introvert is someone who is energized by spending time alone. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, notes that introverts have a preference for a quieter, minimally stimulating environments. While some introverts may also be shy, introversion and shyness are not the same thing.
There are different degrees of introversion. Some introverts, like myself, can act like extroverts at times, even though we need time alone to recharge. Other introverts are more obviously drained in group social settings.
Introverts are also often unfairly characterized as disliking people, which is generally not true. We like you and we like people in general, we just don’t like interacting with too many people at once, or for too long. At that point, we may dislike anyone because we have become what I call “peopled out.” But it’s nothing personal. We’ll like you again after we’ve had some time to ourselves.
Cain estimates that between 15 and 50 percent of people are introverts. That means that the majority of the world operates from an extroverted perspective. But that doesn’t make extroversion better, despite many of the messages introverts receive.
As a little girl, I was painfully shy. Over the years, I outgrew my shyness and became more comfortable and confident in social settings. It took me a long time, however, to realize and accept that I was still an introvert. I, too, thought that shyness and introversion were the same thing, and that I needed to overcome both. I thought that my introversion was my “thorn in the flesh” that kept me from being a better leader.
In fact, the very opposite is true. Introversion is a strength, not a weakness. As an introvert, I have a deep, rich interior world that helps me discern well, give thoughtful responses, experience comfort in silence and solitude. I am skilled at deep conversation and strong, lasting connections. These are all great gifts to our culture and our organizations, families, and friends. And these are strengths in leadership as well. I’d like to offer six tips to lead well as an introvert.
Acknowledge and accept your introversion.
God made extroverts and introverts. He made you the way you are. Don’t try to be someone else; it will only leave you more tired and frustrated. Stand proudly in your introversion and don’t apologize for who God has made you to be. If you find yourself irritated or drained, maybe you have been trying to be someone you’re not. Don’t let an extroverted world, or a leadership culture that prizes charismatic personalities, define what your own leadership should look like.
I’ve learned to command a room and fire up a crowd. I can be a bundle of energy. But in the end, those activities drain my emotional reserves, leaving me with nothing left for ministry to myself or others. I am a better leader when I operate from the strength of my introversion.
ne way to lean into your introversion is to delegate responsibility for higher-profile, up-front tasks. I’m much less drained by standing in the background in a supporting role while someone else leads the charge. Besides, effective delegation is a hallmark of good leadership.
Learn what refills your tank.
Is it a quiet evening at home with family? An afternoon by yourself with a good book or a favorite playlist? Lunch with a close friend? A nap or an uninterrupted night of sleep? A solo walk or run? Dinner with your loved ones each night? Pay attention to what recharges your batteries. Be aware that some things that are very fun can also be very draining. If you find yourself feeling wiped out or resentful after a string of activities or social gatherings, it may not be that the activities themselves were poor choices, but that you didn’t allow enough time before, after or between to restore your energy. Nurture the activities and relationships that nurture you.
Block out time to recharge.
I’ve come to realize that I need wide margins before and after social activities. Any time I am scheduled to travel or lead or speak at a large event, I block out days on my calendar before and after to gear up and wind down. These days are as important as the events themselves, and therefore become part of my schedule. I don’t apologize for crash days, and I make it clear that I’ll be back—and back at full strength—after that recovery time.
At my church, most people only see me when I’m “on” and they laugh when I tell them I’m an introvert. They see me on stage with the worship team, in the lobby greeting friends and visitors, and interacting with my off-the-chart extroverted pastor-husband. They don’t see my quiet Saturday nights at home while I’m a “preaching widow,” my hard naps on Sunday afternoons, or all the time I spend by myself throughout the week.
Consider the energy cost.
When you’re presented with an opportunity, event, or activity, whether it’s a large party or a coffee date, consider not just the time but also the emotional energy cost of the commitment. Your calendar may be open but that doesn’t mean you have the emotional margin needed for that activity.
I continue to struggle with this. I see openings on my calendar and assume they come with unlimited energy. Last year, I was considering a trip to Colorado to visit my mentor and a few friends and attending the Catalyst conference two days later. Each would be very energizing in some ways yet also very draining. As I talked through the options with my husband, he wisely pointed out that as much fun as each trip would be, I wouldn’t have enough recovery time between them and would end up regretting a decision to do both. He was right; I chose the time in Colorado and connection time with dear friends and colleagues, which filled my mind and heart so fully that I needed several weeks to soak in and process the trip. Adding a loud conference with 13,000 people immediately after would have put me in a major energy deficit.
Find pockets of silence.
There are times when you have to be in high social mode. There are regular meetings, ministry events, and family commitments each week. In those times, do your best to find a pocket of silence or solitude within the busyness.
In a large crowd, I’ll often retreat to a corner and engage in deeper conversation with a few others. My husband, on the other hand, bounces from person to person, working the room. When people come to check on me and ask if I’m okay, I just smile and say I’m manning the “introvert corner.” On retreats, I sneak away for an hour of silence in an unused room with the lights off. I have also been known to put noise-canceling headphones on and read a book while my family watches a loud action movie. I want to be with them, but sometimes I can’t take any more stimulation.
Watch for warning signals.
Do you find yourself easily irritated by people? Feeling “worn down” physically or emotionally? Like you just want to crawl in a corner and disappear? These are signs that you’ve been pushing too hard and not respecting your introversion. Attend to these signals as quickly as possible before your batteries run out completely. Similarly, pay attention to the small voice that questions the wisdom of another commitment. Even though it’s difficult as a leader, learn to say “no” to things you know will drain you.
I’m a ministry leader and pastor’s wife, and with all respect, I just don’t do large group prayer meetings. I absolutely believe in the importance of prayer, and of the power of group prayer, but I’ve learned through too much experience that these drain me faster than many other activities. I’ll just pray at home. Alone. And you can pray for me in your meeting.
If you’re an introverted leader by giftedness, calling, or position, I hope these truths are encouraging and empowering. Your introversion truly is a strength, and you’ll be most effective when you lead as God made you—an introvert.
Angie Ward is a ministry leader and professor. She lives with her pastor-husband, two teenage sons, and one spoiled beagle just outside Indianapolis.