6 Ways to Nurture Introverts and Quiet Leaders in Our Schools and Workplaces
From years helping introverted students thrive, here are my six best tips for nurturing quiet leaders.
Our world rewards extroverts. As much as we have moved on from the teen movies of the eighties with their high school archetypes, the popular quarterback is still too often elected class president. Similarly, we expect our executives and leaders to be brash, loud and people-oriented.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone was shut indoors, cut off from the normal social events that keep our schools, workplaces and world humming. For extroverts, this was an extremely challenging time. Meanwhile, introverts, the perennial underdogs, were, in an odd way, much more resilient in the face of catastrophic change.
I observed this with both the students we counsel in our college admissions consulting practice and also among my team here. Extroverted students struggled at home without hallway interactions, in-person learning or high school milestones like dances or athletic events. Introverted students, meanwhile, read more books, wrote inspiring poetry, solved complicated math problems, crafted interesting research projects and spent time with themselves — as they were used to doing.
Our workplace is 100 percent remote. Our counselors are self-guided and live all over the world. During the pandemic, we made sure to check in on everyone. One counselor, who self-identifies as an introvert, barely left her home — she thought it was the most luxurious two years of her life.
Introverts have the advantage of finding peace in the inner landscape of their thoughts. They tend to be grounded, self-aware and willing to let others shine. From our years helping introverted students thrive, here are my six best tips for nurturing quiet leaders:
1. Don’t confuse introversion for shyness
A great myth about introverts is that they are shy; this is not necessarily true. An introvert may be quieter and more reserved (although not always), but shyness is a totally different quality. Introverts simply get energy from spending time with themselves. Ever talked to someone at a party who was excellent at listening and asking you questions about yourself? They were probably an introvert! Introverts feel secure enough that they can make room for others. Because of this quality, they are useful to have in collaborative settings. They have the gift of not only sharing quality ideas, but pulling them out of other people.
2. Redefine what it means to be high impact
Even though we know better, we tend to reward the people speaking up the most or the loudest — even if they’re not really saying anything. Instead, look out for the quiet, thoughtful contributor. Who is really offering the best ideas in the classroom or in the Zoom room? Introverts are rarely blowhards. “Integrity is the ability to listen to a place inside oneself that doesn’t change,” says Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man. Not only do your introverts have great ideas, you can also trust their ideas are more likely to be aligned with the values and principles they hold true. How does that translate into impact?
3. Leverage new channels to amplify introverted voices
Being heard used to require being willing to speak up in front of crowds. No longer. Technology has created digital platforms that allow introverts to amass large followings from the comfort of their homes. Start a podcast, enter a slam poetry contest or become an organizational expert over Zoom. Success no longer requires collaborating with lots of people. We have a very quiet student who often feels disconnected from kids in his high school — but lives a double life as a rapper, producing and sharing music in his bedroom. During the pandemic, he won a national songwriting contest.
4. Give introverts a heads-up about meetings so they can prep
Extroverts are often the people speaking up in class or meetings, offering their viewpoints or thoughts. They have a million things to say, are comfortable speaking off the cuff and enjoy impromptu brainstorming. However, introverts spend a lot of time considering what they want to contribute. They might have the juiciest comment — they just need to be set up right to share. Before a meeting, share the agenda and give people plenty of time to prep. Introverts then will have a chance to do the deep thinking that produces true innovation or problem-solving.
5. Look deeper when selecting experts and guides
Because extroverts take up so much space and have a ready opinion, people tend to look to them first when solutions are needed. But remember, introverts take the time alone to explore their thoughts. Do not pass them by because they aren’t jumping up to contribute. It always breaks my heart when teachers complain about our quiet, brilliant introverts not being engaged. Make sure, whether in the classroom or the office, to invite introverts to speak. Offer pauses to schedules to allow new voices a chance to gather thoughts to share. Your quietest worker might be your deepest thinker. Give them a few days to noodle and you will be surprised what they deliver.
6. Create a reward system in line with introverted values
Introverts might not want applause, public accolades or most of all, immediate feedback. Because introverts value reflection, they appreciate that quality in others, especially in people with power — their teachers, managers and executives. Introverts do not need gold stars. Reward their thoughtfulness and poise by showing they are seen for what they authentically contribute. Give them space for quiet reflection and create conditions where they can thrive, i.e., quiet lab environments or a comfortable desk in a library.
I believe quiet leadership has the ability to transform our communal spaces by elevating reflection, listening and collaboration over our traditional models of leadership. To our great advantage, our schools and workplaces are beginning to recognize the value of celebrating introverts.
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