“Me, a natural leader? Are you kidding me? How could somebody so shy and introverted possibly lead others?”
That’s what I said three years ago, after my first-ever coaching session. The feedback I got from my coach was that I was naturally predisposed to be a leader. But this wasn’t coherent with how I saw myself.
Have you ever felt compelled to lead, but got stuck in your self-image of being too shy and introverted?
Have you ever thought that you didn’t have enough confidence, eloquence, or self-esteem to facilitate a group — even though, deep down, you knew exactly what the group needed?
This happens when you assume that leadership is about overpowering people. Telling them what to do. Persuading them to behave in a way that they wouldn’t normally choose to.
But this has nothing to do with real leadership. A much more accurate definition is encapsulated in Seth Godin’s words:
“Leaders create the conditions where people choose new actions.
The choices are voluntary. They’re made by people who see a new landscape, new opportunities and new options.
You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.”
This is all a leader really does. They use their presence to create the environment that the tribe is already looking for. They provide the conditions for the tribe to thrive — according to their definition, not the leader’s.
As it turns out, this is what introverts naturally do.
The Biggest Misconception About Leadership
Secretly, I’d always wanted to provide experiences for people. I think it started in pre-school when, during the daily afternoon nap, I would stay up and read a book to the other kids.
I found immense pleasure in being the provider of an experience rather than its passive consumer.
But as I grew up, I accumulated a lot of insecurity that kept me from doing that. As a teenager, I saw myself as an outsider. Shy. Out of context. Socially awkward.
The more I thought of myself this way, the more I attached my identity to it. As a result, I assumed the position of a follower in most situations. For years, I didn’t believe that I would ever be able to lead.
Then, as I dove deeper into personal development, I realized something: I was looking for experiences that people around me didn’t initiate.
When I wanted to create art, others invited me for a drink. When I wanted to spend holidays in nature, others were organising European city tours.
I finally understood that to live the experiences I was seeking, I had to initiate them myself.
And that meant leading. Convincing people to do what I wanted. Being confident enough so others would follow along. Overcoming my shyness and becoming expansive enough to influence my environment.
Or so I thought back then. Now I see that leadership doesn’t involve any of these things.
The leader’s job is much simpler. It starts with finding a tribe that shares their values and interests.
The Leader Takes the Tribe Where They Want to Go
This is what I’ve been learning recently from Jon Morrow in one of his blogging courses. To be a successful blogger these days is to be a leader.
For this, you need to be clear about who you’re talking to and where these people want to go.
Until I enrolled in the course, I had my writing approach backwards. I believed that I could gather people around any message, provided that my writing was compelling enough.
In other words, I didn’t care about what the readers wanted. I focused on where I wanted them to go.
This is a common fallacy in how we think about leadership. We assume that the leader is somebody who “knows better” and that the tribe should simply trust the leader to tell them what to do.
Wrong. This may be the role of a consultant, but it’s not the role of a leader.
A leader is someone who understands where the tribe already wants to go. They’re not trying to make people interested in something they don’t care about. Instead, they go as deep as possible into the tribe’s existing motivations and desires.
Then, as Seth Godin said, they create an environment where people choose to change.
The direction of this change isn’t determined by the leader. It’s determined by the tribe. That’s the only way to create authentic movement through leadership — to cater to the tribe’s already existing desire to change.
As soon as you understand this, you’ll see that being an introvert can actually help you lead. Leading is not about overpowering others — it’s about creating space for them.
And isn’t it what introverts naturally do?
Why It’s Easier to Lead if You’re an Introvert
This year, being shy and introverted helped me lead in a few different contexts.
I was a captain of a sailing boat during a week-long cruise. I coordinated a group of environmental activists in my town. I hosted a mindfulness retreat and led my first guided meditation in nature.
The feelings of shyness and insecurity that I’d been struggling with all my life were there with me all along. They didn’t disappear. I didn’t “overcome” them to become a fully confident leader.
My voice shook and my mind worried about what other people thought. I doubted my skills and I struggled to express my opinions. But somehow, this didn’t stop me from doing what I’d always wanted to do: providing an experience for other people.
I noticed that, in many ways, being shy and introverted makes it easier to be a good leader. Sure, you’ll feel uncomfortable. Sure, you’ll doubt yourself and what you’re doing many times. That’s normal when you try something for the first time.
But the experience of having a tribe who trusts you to lead them may still feel worthwhile. Your discomfort doesn’t mean that you’re not adding value to their lives.
That’s because, as an introvert, you already have many qualities of a natural leader.
1. You know how to listen.
A good leader understands their tribe. They empathize with them and know the root of their problems, goals, and motivations.
That’s only possible if the leader knows how to listen.
When I started meeting other activists to organize environmental strikes in our town, everyone had tons of ideas. I had mine, too. But very soon, I realized that adding them to the conversation wouldn’t be helpful. Our discussions were already too chaotic.
The only way I could add value to the meetings was by genuinely listening to others and acknowledging their ideas. So I started doing that.
This was the primary factor that later led to me being the group’s leader. By letting other people know that I listen, I earned their trust. Soon, I realized that they were asking for my opinion and even expecting me to make certain decisions.
Introverts know how to really listen. Others feel this — and instinctively confide in them as leaders.
2. You’re used to being vulnerable
Deep down, every single person on this planet wants to be authentic. Everyone prefers to be themselves rather than pretend to be something they’re not.
The thing is, most people never give themselves permission to be authentic. That’s because being authentic means being vulnerable. And that’s scary.
A leader is someone who gives this permission to the tribe. The simplest way to do that is by showing their own vulnerability.
I did this in the middle of the retreat I hosted. One afternoon, I felt overwhelmed with all the organisational stuff and constant company of so many people. Despite feeling a bit bad about leaving the guests to their own devices, I decided to take a nap in my room to recover.
At first, I worried that my guests would judge me for it. And so, I was surprised when one of the girls came to me later and said:
“You know, this moment when you just went to sleep in the middle of the day, I felt so relieved. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to stay together as a group all the time, and I felt like spending some time on my own. Seeing that you just went for it gave me permission to do the same.”
As an introvert, you’ve felt vulnerable many times. As a leader, you can channel this vulnerability to empower others.
3. You easily comply with what others want
Compliance is seen as a vice in our culture of hustle and personal achievement. Often, you’re encouraged to stop caring about what people think and “do it anyway.”
No regrets. No apologies. No looking back.
But attuning to what other people want is not always a bad thing. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or undecided. For a leader who wants to serve their tribe, compliance can actually be a great advantage.
When I was sailing this summer, I decided to let my crew choose where to moor. I knew the lakes well, and I thought it would be more fun for all of us if the newcomers picked the places we went to.
Even though I was the captain, I decided to leave certain decisions to the crew. As a leader, I also followed. This made me realize that a vital part of leadership is trusting others to make choices — and complying with them.
As an introvert, you’ve learned how to be content with other people’s decisions. You’ve been a follower so many times that it comes naturally to you to let someone else steer the boat for a while.
That’s what a good leader does. They trust their tribe enough to let go of the urge to control everything.
4. Holding space for others comes naturally to you
For any change to happen, there needs to be space for it. In everyday life, it’s hard to find that space.
This is precisely what stops us from introducing new things into our lives. Our days are often too crowded to contain novelty.
One way the leader’s role manifests is through holding space for others. I love this expression because it literally means just that: keeping the space empty long enough for something new to emerge.
I experienced this profoundly during my retreat. After the welcoming meditation, I invited participants to share their feelings and intentions in a circle. As it turned out, some people needed time to find the courage to open up in front of others.
This meant that there was silence between one person sharing and the next. In those moments I realized that it was up to me — the leader of the experience — to hold that empty space long enough for the next person to start speaking.
It was tempting to fill it with meaningless words, but I didn’t.
Perpetuating the silence was the key to “creating the environment where people choose to change.” Some participants only found the courage to speak when the silence became pronounced and comfortable enough.
If you’re an introvert, space holding is a straightforward act. You already know how to step back and let the experience unfold without interference.
The value this can have for others is greater than you think.
Leadership Is About Bringing People Together
Contrary to what you’re used to believing, being an introvert gives you an advantage as a leader.
That’s because you don’t really care about taking the spotlight. Your natural inclination is to let others shine.
The only challenge is to make that happen without belittling yourself. This becomes possible as you learn to see your introversion, shyness, and even insecurity as gifts, not obstacles.
And the great news is that by encouraging others, you also boost yourself.
You can raise your own confidence by placing your attention on the tribe. As Susan Piver, a Buddhist practitioner and expert in mindful communication, observed:
“To have confidence is very simple. It doesn’t mean you have to believe in yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to think you’re the best, it doesn’t mean you have to be certain about what you know. Here is the way — guaranteed — to generate confidence:
Place your attention on maximizing the other person’s position.
(…) When you seek to maximize the other person’s position, thinking about them, giving them what they need — you suddenly take the seat of power.”
It’s so simple. And it works.
You can use your inclination to focus on others to strengthen your own confidence. As an introvert, that’s the one thing you may feel has been missing from your life.
Once you have confidence, you’re 100% ready to lead.
You may be thinking, But why should I even want to lead? Why would I make an effort to initiate, when it’s comfortable to just follow what others do?
Well — if you know a strong leader whom you can trust to take you where you want to go, consider yourself lucky. If there’s nothing you want to change about your reality, then you probably don’t need to think about leadership.
But chances are, there’s much more you want to experience in this life.
Maybe you want to create something meaningful with other people. Maybe you want to see the world transformed before you leave it. Or, maybe you simply want to feel like you’re a part of a loving community.
All of these things are only possible when a leader is present. Why shouldn’t it be you?
There have been many times when I’ve been in a group of people who wanted to do something together but failed because there was no leader. Nobody was courageous and vulnerable enough to take charge of the collective experience.
There was nobody to coordinate actions, delegate responsibilities, or at least facilitate a dialogue. Everyone — including me — was hiding.
And when no one is willing to lead, the togetherness we all long for can’t happen.
Separately, one person can only do so much. Only through cooperation can we fulfil our collective potential as human beings. To cooperate and connect, the leader is essential.
For the longest time, I thought that assigning myself the role of a leader was pure arrogance.
Me? What do I know? How dare I claim such an important position? Surely, there are people here who are better prepared to lead than I am.
But many times, there weren’t. The saviour I was waiting for wasn’t coming. And so, the only way to make things happen was to take the lead myself.
The leader is usually the person who cares the most. Who’s ready to be vulnerable and available for others. Someone who will risk embarrassing themselves for the sake of creating new possibilities for the whole tribe.
As an introvert, you’re already familiar with this. So why not own it and take the lead next time no one else is willing to?