The case for introverted leadership.
Hello. I am a product management leader, and I am an introvert.
It wasn’t long ago that I’d be ashamed to admit that. After all, what do most people typically think of when they think of a leader? Someone who’s bold, loud and the center of attention. For men, the alpha male. Gordon Gekko.
I identify as “INTJ” within The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, an introverted personality type. Here’s a description of the INTJ leadership style:
“Though they may be surprised to hear it, INTJs make natural leaders, and this shows in their management style. INTJs value innovation and effectiveness more than just about any other quality, and they will gladly cast aside hierarchy, protocol and even their own beliefs if they are presented with rational arguments about why things should change. INTJs promote freedom and flexibility in the workplace, preferring to engage their subordinates as equals, respecting and rewarding initiative and adopting an attitude of ‘to the best mind go the responsibilities’, directing strategy while more capable hands manage the day-to-day tactics.”
That INTJ’s make natural leaders doesn’t surprise me. While they’re missing some of the traditional external leadership qualities, such as charismatic communication, you find other great qualities hinted at in the paragraph above:
- Introverts innovate through empathic listening. Introverted product leaders empathize with people — customers, partners, employees or a stranger who’s simply having a bad day. Empathy is very difficult to learn. It helps us identify customer pain points and game changing product opportunities. For introverts, this level of listening is best done within small groups.
- Introverts are thoughtful in their responses. I admit, I cannot ad lib a response to save my life. I must think through a challenging question overnight and come up with all the angles before responding. But since most questions don’t need an answer on the spot, the delay is perfectly fine. You can expect a great answer from an introvert when he or she is ready.
- Introverts spend more time analyzing individuals’ strengths. I take pride in analyzing employee strengths and putting them in positions to grow and succeed. For example, I recently hired a strategic analyst to join my team, which is not necessarily a “traditional” role within Product. But I saw his potential to go beyond numbers and spreadsheets, and he had genuine interest and skill in activities such as market research and customer communication. Because of his ability to empathize, I entrusted him to lead customer interviews sessions, which resulted in good product insights.
- Introverts don’t rule with an iron fist. We don’t tend to micromanage; we empower people by giving them the freedom to make decisions. We do this because we assume that each person is capable of doing the job he or she was hired to do. Only if there are issues do we step in and offer to help.
- Introverts iterate on processes. Good strategy is worthless without execution, and we understand that it’s about getting things done with high quality and speed. We help our teams identify the tactics to get from here to there. If it means creating lightweight processes and tools to drive projects down the pipeline, such as idea pitch deck templates, revenue models and plan-of-record project databases, we’ll do whatever it takes.
- Introverts love to problem-solve. Someone who solves problems is instantly valuable to a company. One of my favorite questions to ask an executive is: “What keeps you up at night?” When I asked my former manager that question, he cited the company’s challenge with upgrading our existing customer base to higher subscription plans. While this is normally a focus of Sales and Marketing, I didn’t respond with: “That’s not Product’s problem.” Instead, I worked with Sales to create and execute a series of up-sell campaign tests and measure the results.
- Introverts don’t need to be the smartest or loudest to lead. Our subdued confidence allows us to understand that it doesn’t matter if the idea comes from us. By being open minded, we don’t allow good opportunities to slip away.
- Introverts see past org charts and titles. We judge our colleagues by what they have to offer, not by how well they play office politics. Meritocracy may seem utopian, but it’s genuinely worth striving for.
So, to executives everywhere, have an open mind. Understand that leadership comes in many forms and judge someone by their results, not by how well they sell themselves. You might be surprised to find world-class diamonds in the rough.
And, to my fellow introverted leaders, take pride. You don’t need to change who you are. Keep building on your strengths and strive to be the best you can be.