Visionary Leadership: Why Introverts Can Be Great Leaders, Too

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Leadership strategist and entrepreneur Lisa Petrilli explains why leadership requires vision, and why introverts can be great leaders, too.

why introverts can be great leaders, too

When it comes to introverts, there’s a common misconception that they lack the necessary qualities to be effective leaders. It’s a perception that leadership strategist and entrepreneur Lisa Petrilli disagrees with and, as a self-described introvert and a highly successful entrepreneur, it’s one she can legitimately disprove.

But being introverted isn’t about being shy or team averse, says Petrilli, who founded executive consulting firm C-Level Strategies in 2010 and authored The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership last year. Instead, it’s simply about drawing energy and creative juices from a different place.

While extroverts are at their best in more populated, bustling surroundings, introverts thrive in smaller group — and, yes, sometimes singular — settings and draw their energy from their inner world. Neither preference is wrong or better than the other, Petrilli explains, and both types of personalities can produce excellent leaders.

Petrilli recently sat down for a brief conversation with OpenView to discuss her experience as a successful introverted CEO, the roadblocks she faced along the way, and why she thinks possessing and communicating vision is the true foundation of great leaders.

As an introvert, did you find the leadership component of being an entrepreneur difficult early in your career?

Absolutely. In a business environment, you can’t escape the outer world that extroverts prefer. You have to exist and interact there if you want to be successful. For an extrovert, it’s an energizing experience to participate in larger groups and lead large teams. An introvert can be very successful in that world, but we don’t like to spend the preponderance of our time there.

Ultimately, leaders at companies of all sizes need to spend time every day getting out of their comfort zone if they want to be successful. I’m not suggesting that introverts have to become extroverts, but it’s important to get out of your office, motivate your team, and talk to the world about your company. If you’re the CEO of a growing company, those situations are unavoidable, and if you don’t embrace them at some point you’ll hit a career ceiling.

The good news, though, is that once you’ve done that, I absolutely think it’s important for introverts to return to their sanctums and explore their inner world of ideas. It’s really about striking a balance between your introverted preferences and the extroverted demands of corporate leadership.

What makes introverts particularly strong leaders in the startup and expansion stage phases?

I think introverts excel at creating and setting a vision for their company or product. Many people assume that the majority of CEOs — because they’re the figureheads of their companies — are extroverts. In my experience, that has not been the case.

Introverts — like a lot of entrepreneurs — tend to be creatively minded people who work well in innovative environments that allow them to dream up fantastic products and features. Early on, those people are great leaders because they’re comfortable communicating that vision to their small teams.

You talk a lot about the concept of “visionary leadership.” How exactly do you define it and how does it differ from other leadership styles?

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I’m not sure that visionary leadership is a “style” as much as it is a foundation for great leadership. Ultimately, CEOs at the startup and enterprise levels need to know where they want to take their organizations. Executives may have a tendency to brush aside the idea of vision and turn it into a stock exercise that they execute with their team once a year.

That’s a big mistake. Your vision should be the framework of your business. It gets to the core of what you do, where you want the company to go, and what your market’s going to look like when you get there. Ultimately, a company’s leader needs to illuminate that path. If you look at Steve Jobs, he certainly did that with Apple. Steve Jobs was well known as a visionary and he created, communicated, and stuck with a very specific vision.

In the end, vision is about asking yourself how your business is going to make its customers more successful. When you think about your company as a medium for improving its customers’ lives, it can be hugely inspirational for you and your employees. Without that vision, your business will likely lack the internal fire that truly fuels long-term success.

What one piece of advice would you give early-stage CEOs — particularly introverted ones — about creating and communicating that vision to their teams?

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I think the easiest way to summarize everything we’ve discussed is to say that what you bring to the table needs to be uniquely you. Whether we’re talking about leadership styles, personalities, or products, it’s critical to understand your strengths, embrace them, and deliver them in a way that is genuine and impactful.

Everyone assumes that innovation is about creating groundbreaking technology or that leadership is about being this boisterous personality, and neither is necessarily true. Ultimately, innovation and leadership are about being who you’re meant to be and less of who you’re not. If you can figure that out and clearly convey your passion, then you’ll empower your employees, investors, and customers to follow you.

You’ve heard from Lisa, now we want to hear from you.

Are you a introvert in a leadership position? What challenges have you faced? What advice do you have for other introverted leaders?

Senior Strategy & Training Architect

  • AT

    Being an introvert running a business, I find it difficult initiating a communication with the people involved. But when I do, it comes out very clearly because I already have everything sorted out in my head and i’m often able to anticipate others’ questions and problems. It just takes a little mental push to get out of my comfort zone.

    • Dwi Aryssandhy

      i’am agree with you AT…yes, its look difficult for introvert in first time, but with their mentality, they could do it

  • Eric

    Ever hear of Alfred Sloan? He was one of the great innovators and marketeers in American history, and maybe the best CEO ever. He left one of the great, loud-mouthed extroverts, Henry Ford, in his dust. Sloan professed to liking ideas more than people and had to be talked into attending industry events. He shunned the spotlight. They called him “Silent Sloan.”

    As Harry Truman said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”

    • John

      Most people have never heard of Alfred Sloan, but everyone has heard of Henry Ford. Ford pioneered mass production of cars, and ended up very wealthy.

      How did Sloan leave Ford in his dust ?

  • The abilty to listen and digest, is essential to good leadership. Iquite agree with this analysis.

  • Madhav

    Me, virtually not introvert but compulsive for years together tend to be extrovert now. Only my nature of job still makes me introvert since I’ve a little time to go out and met and make new friends. Also i’m needed to shift at least 5 places like, Ahmedabad, to shillong, Sibsagar, Nagaon and presently at Jorhat in less than a span of one decades frequently. So even i wish to be extrovert, i’m yet to get through.

  • j0anneg

    bill gates is introvert and so are many other successful leaders and entrepreneurs

  • Awori

    I think the entire discussion is founded on the wrong philosophy. Strategic visioning (as i call it)—which leads to innovation and quite often, invention, requires extraordinary depth in reflection and introspection. This has little to do with being an “introvert” or “extrovert” (I hate the terms!).

  • bilgi bulus

    One of the great introvert entrepreneurs is Yvon Chouinard… Don’t miss his fascinating talk in Green Biz event:

  • R.M.A

    . I am an introvert and I have done leadership being introvert, I
    felt difficulty while conversing with other, I am scared of public speaking and
    my heart beat running whenever I faced public…….I have faced many difficulties
    and I need motivation at that time when I
    have to do that type of task like publicly …….
    I am glad to know after reading this article, there is someone who raises
    voice about introvert, but I read somewhere that according to shyness, “shyness
    is not a genetic, it’s cultivated within us by environment, by family and by
    dumb lack”…. I have found one thing in me, I hurt when I am defeated or gain
    lower marks compare to other or if someone making jokes about me in whole class,
    my expressions changed , I became completely tense… but my family and I have to
    handle situation , no one else will going to trouble out this problem , I (me) don’t
    want to discuss my problems publicly because I know , no one have solution , I have
    to change myself slow and steady , and now I am 35% crossed , the change I have
    set …… and reading this article , I am motivated too ….

  • siraj

    It doesnt matter you are an introvert,straight,gay,black or white. As long as you know what it takes to get things done the way you want, you are inThe whole discussion is futile.

  • R.K. Das

    There is no doubt about it that without any VISION there is not survival of a Business. All the activities leading to achieve such visionary GOALS always need a LEADER without whose involvement nothing can be achieved. As discussed above, an INTROVERT’s visionary targets are always different from an EXTROVERT. Both the streams have got different limitations for performing the related activities. An Introvert finds it easy to take lot many decisions at his own level but, on the other hand an Extrovert has to depend on others while concluding the decision – though both have their Visionary targets. To me the results what we achieve in these two fields, always depend on the STRATEGY we apply. As far as COMFORT ZONE is concerned one has to be of adjustable according to the given conditions/situation of the business. LEADERSHIP with great VISION always plays an IMPORTANT ROLE to achieve the set targets. My feelings

  • Edmond Y

    Effective and honest communication is the main requisite to good leadership especially if you’re introverted by nature. When you know yourself well and able to focus on your ultimate objectives, the vision will become clear

    and the rest is just hard work. Naturally you need to have good health as you’ll need all your energy to go forward.

  • Rabi Bhushan Sharma

    Technological advancement has brought immense changes in the way of analysing the things, particularly those related to personality and leadership. Now an analyst is equipped with more piercing and accurate ways of looking into a person, place or problem.
    It is not surprising that we are able to dissect the object with precision and to such details and sub-details and result is a fast dissemination of the outcome.
    But a word of caution! ! In the whole process of modern analysis, we forget to have a total picture and what is left on the laboratory table is a ROSE shred and shattered into pieces with beauty of BEING lost for ever.
    Compartmentalisation of problem is going to lead us nowhere. In order to ensure our quest in a truly fruitful manner, we must have a total view before us. Introvertism or extrovertism, both are inalienable traits of a living person with each one complementing the other.
    A true leader is required to be as stunningly agile and swift as a serpent on the move and as calm and sagacious as a crane on the water.
    A true leader is a complete leader.

  • Imtiaz Ali

    Introverts are great writers.

  • Arun Kumbhat

    Being an introvert and having started several businesses I have faced the same issues that Lisa speaks off. In hindsight I would think that introverts (and for that matter extroverts too) need to recognize themselves very quickly and accept the up and downsides of being so.
    That for introverts would mean to find their key team/partners very early in the game who would be the operations/execution/sales core and then get back to their key strengths. This small team would offer the small close team environment that brings out the best in the introvert.
    Without this layer around them introverts would soon hit a logjam.
    This really is the challenge since being judgmental isn’t what comes naturally to introverts.
    Speed would be of essence as none of us can behave out of character for a long stretch of time.

  • Ames

    I’m not an introvert myself but I agree introverts can sometimes be very effective leaders. Part of this is that they are good listeners and absorb what others have to say.

  • Sam

    I’m introverted and I have specific ways to cope at work. For instance before a long meeting where I know I will be required to do a lot of presenting or talking, I will try to minimize the amount of social activity I have beforehand to avoid draining myself out. Otherwise by the end of the meeting I’d be a mumbling mess with a headache. The great thing about being introverted is that I like social activity but in small doses and I don’t mind spending prolonged periods alone – this comes in extremely handy when I’m traveling excessively work.

  • Kapil Mendiratta

    If a Person is clear about what is the position of his Company and Where actually he wants to take, It can never matter if he is an Introvert or an Extrovert…It is the will that takes ON,

  • Sushil Kumar Sachdev

    Be a leader who is extrovert outwardly in interaction with people inside and outside the organisation and a good listener but introvert while taking decisions after taking all pros and cons & vision of the organisation along with resources.Generally such leaders are more effective .I agree with author.