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Confessions From an Introverted Leader
 

The best leaders are the charming, outgoing types, right? As an introvert, of course, I analyzed this to death--until I discovered it's not true.

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I was surprised as anyone back in 1990 when I landed my first real job.

Full healthcare benefits, a retirement plan, and much more! An actual salary to pay the bills and even buy myself a commuter car! I was soon to become the manager of a shoe store in Oakdale, Minnesota. My parents, not to mention my wife, were so proud.

Unfortunately, my first week on the job was a total bust.

Because I focused so much on the register--making sure someone was always there, that we were processing transactions correctly--I forgot to check in with my employees. I commanded them to do things rather than asking. I never said "please." One even threw some penny loafers at me from across an aisle, which is never a good sign.

Somehow, despite my introverted personality, I lasted about two years. (You can read all about my unfortunate forays into middle management on my personal blog.) Yet, I had this dead-set mentality that I wanted to be a leader of people in business. Over the course of the next 10 years, I worked as a middle manager at various start-ups and one major corporation. Up until recently, my take on this period of my working life was pretty simple: I had crashed and burned. I was a terrible leader. I'm better off as a writer.

What's the Stuff of Leadership?

In the business world, the best leaders are those who charge ahead, right? You know the maxim: if you want to know if you are a good leader, look behind you and see if anyone is following. Leaders get to where they are because they have charisma and charm. They are really good at convincing people to do things.

But what if that's not really true at all?

Recently, I took a Myers-Briggs test at an event that offered some new perspective on this topic. Ironically, while I did have many weaknesses as a manager, I probably had some untapped potential as well. In fact, I might have fit the profile perfectly.

If you know anything about the Myers-Briggs test, this will resonate with you. I am an INFP, the same personality type as Aldous Huxley, William Shakespeare, and J.R.R. Tolkien. We tend to analyze things, keep our thoughts where they are safe (e.g., inside our heads), and have more than a little trouble with large group settings and social functions.

The event was sponsored by Ford and the goal was to find out which car matches your personality. (They told me I should start shopping for a C-MAX.) But the really valuable part of this personality profiling was that I met with a certification expert.

Leadership According to Meyers-Briggs

Michael Segovia is a lead trainer for the Meyers-Briggs certification program. He has a background in clinical psychology, which made me a little nervous. (When he told me he was also an INFP, I relaxed a little.) Segovia explained how the INFP personality type is actually not a bad match for leadership. Extroversion hardly means well qualified--and each personality type can have leadership strengths.

Extroverts tend to charge ahead on their own agenda and wait for others to follow, he says. But they are not as good at analyzing the end goals. This might be one reason why so many entrepreneurs start companies, build up the team and the product, and then eventually fall into what you might call the Groupon curse.

Founder Andrew Mason was a great fit for his start-up early on. He has an engaging personality. He's talkative and energetic, but maybe a little unfocused. He was really good at building things. We know now he is probably not very good at maintaining them.

I'll Keep My Day Job For Now

So what about me? I remember having many intense conversations with employees when I worked at my first start-up. One of them was so upset with me when I called her into my office that she dumped her work onto my floor. In a few cases, especially when it came to firing people, I dreaded confrontations so much that I'd re-schedule meetings multiple times.

In some ways, this was all related to my own immaturity. Yet, looking back, I can see that my reactions also showed empathy. The fact that I dreaded those tense meetings meant I cared about the employee. While I probably should have won the award for the Worst Boss of the Week many times, I also did plenty of one-on-one mentoring. Often, my style was to lead by example, not commandment--and that actually seems to work in a small company.

I'm not ready to give up writing. But maybe I'll return to management someday. After speaking with Mr. Segovia, I realized all of my years in management were not wasted, that they helped build a foundation. INFPs can lead small teams, they can empathize with employees, and analyze issues. They lead by example.

Maybe that's the best personality for leadership. Or maybe not. At least for me, it helps to know that management is not the lone purview of extroverts. In fact, it makes me think of a new axiom: If you are wondering if you are a good leader, look next to you.

IMAGE: Jetta Productions/Getty
Last updated: Jul 16, 2013

JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.
@jmbrandonbb




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