I came upon a realisation twice in my life, once as a quiet child myself, and then by parenting a quiet child. Luckily, it all came full circle, because by the time the second realisation came, I had made my journey towards the acceptance of being an introvert, wholeheartedly.
I am shy by nature and by that measure, unlike most people, my birthday is my least favourite day of the year. Just the thought of being in the spotlight exhausts me. From walking in my mother’s shadow at social gatherings, to biting my tongue in class only to have someone else give the same answer I had in mind, I began to think of the trait as the biggest impediment to a successful life, let alone a career.
And before this starts to seem like a personal memoir, I promise there is a lesson in here. Things took a turn when I was in grade four. My teacher, Mrs Valente (may God bless her soul) announced I was the new Class Pal (the person who took the new kids in class around school to help them settle in). I remember stammering, “Me?” She nodded. The only question pressing hard on my mind was, “What would I even talk to them about?” And so, in a moment of panic I said no. Five other hands shot up in class. The role was assigned to someone else.
Don’t worry; this story has a happy ending as well as the lesson I promised. Over the next few weeks, I wallowed in regret. Because on the inside I was never a quitter. In the days that followed, I would replay the situation in my head over and over again, only this time, it ended with me saying yes. The moment, though, was gone, and I had blown my chance to shine.
But Mrs Valente? She wasn’t like the others. Her belief in me never wavered. The quieter I became, the more she patiently nudged me to participate. Never demanding I speak up, only reassuring me that what I wanted to say was important to her. Asking a question, and then glancing at me with a smile, as if she knew I had worked out the answer already, which somehow, I always had. A month later, another opening came my way. Someone needed to be Class Representative for the year. Again, she asked me to fill the position and this time I was ready to say yes! Fast forward to the end of the year, I was the only one picked from the entire middle-school representative body to take our new principal on a tour of the school.
And now the lesson: I blossomed because someone saw past my quiet, introverted façade, through to what I actually brought to the table. I blossomed because of their patience and encouragement. I blossomed because they gave me a fighting chance. (There is a bonus second lesson here too, for my fellow introverts: when someone asks you to step up, you say yes!)
So, why am I talking about introverts in an advertising publication? Advertising is known for its flamboyance and when you conjure up the image of a leader in this profession, they are likely to be loud and outspoken. The pomp and the show that exists in advertising is for extroverts only – no? Well, brace yourselves because I am about to veer into an almost oxymoronic alternative universe, the one where I introduce to you to... The Introverted Leader. Contrary to popular belief, research proves there is an amazing correlation between introversion and leadership performance and here is a five-point list of why I think this is so.
1 They Listen More Than They Talk
Being good listeners, they are also keen observers and by virtue of this, they are more in-sync with how their team is feeling, making them more far-sighted and flexible in their approach; more collaborative and empathetic towards their team. Being naturally wired to come from a place of humility, they are far less likely to go on power trips.
2 They Lead More Diverse Teams
Having been marginalised, yet always knowing they had more to offer than met the eye, they have learnt to look past the façade and see the substance in people. This enables them to bring together diverse teams who may look completely different to the untrained eye, but who bring immense talent to the mix.
3 They Lead With Passion Not Power
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (a must read for every introvert) writes, “Many introverts arrive at leadership positions not because they set out to be a leader and doggedly became one; rather, because they tend, by their nature, to get very passionate about one or two subjects in their lives. When they get passionate about their work, or a cause, or a mission, they end up inspiring trust, building alliances and acquiring expertise. They ascend to leadership positions in the name of the thing that they really, deeply, care about. That is a very potent way of being a leader. People can feel that commitment.”
4 They are Always Prepared
Winging it is not their strongest suit. Therefore, walking into a meeting means knowing how to manoeuvre the conversation and to avoid ending up in a situation unprepared, they ensure work is done on time, making them excellent managers.
5 They Don’t Waste Time
Introverts, by default, weigh their words. So, a meeting that may run on for hours with an extrovert who likes talking can be wrapped up in far less time by an introvert, or better yet, done on email! Now wouldn’t we all love that?
Knowing none of the above, I went through my early years in advertising believing that posing as an extrovert was my only hope. Fortunately, it was when I walked into the Brand You session by The Invisible Creatives at the ‘See It Be It’ programme in Cannes and met other accomplished women from across the world talking about their introversion as a strength that I realised that what I previously saw as a weakness, was actually bringing out the best in me as a professional and a leader. Today, because I am an introvert, I work harder and end up as the most prepared person in the room. I listen better, so I am more sensitised to what my team needs. I look deeper, so I always hire people for their talent, not for what they seem on the outside. And while I have met plenty of extroverts who make great leaders (many of them are my mentors) I do think it’s time we also shone the spotlight on their more quiet counterparts, because they most definitely won’t do it themselves.
And to my fellow introverts (in the words of a wise friend): you are destined for way more than the world lets you believe!
Hira Mohibullah is ECD, BBDO Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org