Introverted Leaders in History

When we think in terms of roles, we make assumptions. One of the most common assumptions is that introverts can’t be good leaders, having neither the natural talent nor the desire for leadership. And while it is true that more introverted types might not jump at the chance to lead a team, organization, or movement, circumstances can place them there regardless.

Introverted leaders don’t have to be placeholders until a more suitable candidate is found, but it takes an awareness of what an introvert has to offer. Introverts have qualities that extraverts don’t (and vice versa), and individuals who know how to draw on those strengths to solve problems can truly shine.

There are plenty of examples of introverts throughout history to show that extraverts aren’t categorically the best leaders. Introversion is rarely an obstacle for those leaders who don’t see it that way.

Abraham Lincoln: Introverted Orator

An introverted politician sounds like an oxymoron, and one that rises to the office of president might strike us as an impossibility. But then, Abraham Lincoln was no ordinary politician.

A frontier laborer who became a self-educated country lawyer, from an early age Lincoln spent many a night reading and writing works of prose and verse. This fondness for the written word is characteristic of many introverts. But Lincoln reached a point in his moral development where he felt it necessary to overcome his natural, introverted inclination toward solitude in order to oppose the evils that his conscience could no longer tolerate.

Without a formal education, great wealth, or powerful allies, Lincoln’s political success seems unlikely on paper. What he lacked in leadership skills or political advantages, however, he made up for with his gift for communication, which he cultivated in a distinctly introverted manner.

While others chattered around him, hoping to win an argument through sheer volubility, Lincoln’s quiet confidence allowed him to remain silent, listening intently until the time came for him to speak. And when he spoke, others soon learned to listen.

Drawing on countless hours spent devouring books, Lincoln’s vocal power came as much from learned proverbs and witty anecdotes as it did from empathy for his fellow man. Whether in private meetings or at public speeches, Lincoln was profoundly persuasive, not in the manner of a fast-talking extravert, but by imbuing his every word with the sense that it needed to be shared. Though slow to speak, like the proverbial tortoise he won the respect of the gregarious hares around him in the end.

Rosa Parks: Introverted Civil Rights Champion

Though the mid-twentieth century African-American Civil Rights Movement had no shortage of eloquent figures to decry the evils of Jim Crow, Rosa Parks will always be remembered more for what she did than what she said.

Described as shy, reserved, and quiet, Rosa Parks was an introvert who exemplified “passive resistance” when she refused to give her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her quiet, confident resistance led to her arrest for violating the laws of segregation, and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, a crucial turning point in the struggle for civil rights.

Parks was an active participant in the civil rights movement, and while her actions may not have been entirely premeditated, they were well considered. She was aware that any statement of protest, no matter how quietly delivered, would bring with it a host of terrible repercussions.

Because of her actions, Parks was imprisoned, and she lost her job. But she persevered. She spent the rest of her life taking principled stands in her pursuit of social and racial justice. Appropriately for an introvert-turned-champion, Parks would later title her memoir Quiet Strength.

Heidi Brown: Introverted Battlefield Leader

United States Army Brigadier General Heidi Brown has made a career of defying stereotypes. Women still fight the belief that their gender isn’t fit to join the military – for example, 2015 was the first year women were even allowed to attend Army Ranger School. And female soldiers typically serve only in support roles, never as combatants. But in the crisis of battle, where lives are won through sound leadership, such prejudices can quickly fall by the wayside.

Brown, a self-described “introvert by nature,” is nevertheless candid about the struggles she has faced. She has the distinction of being the first woman in American history to command an armed brigade in combat, during the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. To describe her approach to warfare, she referred to Wonder Woman: a superhero who adopts a forceful, larger-than-life persona to accomplish her goals, only to withdraw from the public eye the moment her mission ends.

Where an extravert might have allowed the negativity of others around her to color her opinion of herself, the introverted Brown, as a cadet in the second co-ed class at West Point, found the confidence needed to push forward by looking within. There, she found courage, integrity, humility – the same qualities that would later form the foundation of her leadership style.

While extraverts may be skilled at swiftly capturing the attention of others, real trust is easy to lose, and hard to gain. To gain that trust, one must lead by example – words alone will not suffice. For Brown, gaining the trust of others has been the key to great leadership.

Mark Zuckerberg: Introverted Social Guru

Social media’s role as a virtual gatekeeper for communications has given people more control over how they interact with one another. For many introverts, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been a godsend, even if social media etiquette is still under negotiation. It’s no surprise that introverts, who are more naturally inclined to the discipline needed to hone the coding craft, developed these tools.

Founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg may be best understood as a hacker – not simply in the sense of someone with phenomenal coding skills, though he was programming computer games and other applications for fun when he was still in high school. Zuckerberg is also a hacker in the sense of “lifehacking”: adopting clever new methods in day-to-day routines to efficiently achieve desired results. By seeing the world of social interaction from the detached perspective of an introvert, Zuckerberg was able to see how this “game” could be played in an arena where he felt more comfortable: online.

The astonishing success of Facebook is a testament to the power of an introvert, not only in compensating for a supposed weakness, but in so doing, creating an invaluable resource for the lives of millions, extravert and introvert alike. Once again, Zuckerberg has demonstrated that introversion is no obstacle for a leader who possesses the drive and talent to see a vision through to fruition.