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Powerfully Shy: Lessons from Leaders

Would it surprise you to learn that some powerful leaders were painfully shy?

Part I in a Series

Photo via Fortune Live Media, Flickr CC

Would it surprise you to learn that some powerful business leaders were painfully shy? That they learned to channel some of the inherent strengths that came with their shyness, and built those traits into skills that made them better leaders?

Marissa Mayer, formerly of Google and now the 38-year-old CEO of Yahoo, is profiled in The Truth About Marissa Mayer: An Unauthorized Biography, by Nicholas Carlson, at

Regarding her childhood and adolescence, Mayer has described herself as “a geek” and “painfully shy.” Peers depicted her as “socially awkward.”

At the end of 5th grade, she did not want to leave the classroom because she didn’t feel ready for middle school.

Throughout her formative years, Mayer was seen as studious, bright, and kind, but no one foresaw the larger-than-life leader she was to become. In high school she was known to avoid conversations.

How did Mayer develop into the person who helped develop Google and is in the process of transforming Yahoo?

  • Mayer gives credit to her teachers. As the Business Insider article notes, “They showed her she could organize more than her backpack, desk, and homework. She could organize people, as their leader.”
  • Mayer’s piano teacher describes how Mayer would observe people in an attempt to understand them.
  • Mayer, at various points, overcame her shyness by taking on the role of teacher to others.

As a child, Mayer had supportive parents and teachers. Her thoughtful, observant, and organized style allowed her to learn about people and systems. This style also enabled her to be energized by challenges.

Overall, what can we learn from the Marissa Mayer story? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Teachers and parents are incredibly important. Instead of focusing on a child’s deficiencies, we need to develop the inherent strengths of shy and introverted children. They may be intelligent, good observers, analytical, focused, etc.
  • Shy children can sometimes be encouraged to become helpers or teachers to others. This can build their confidence.
  • Rather than labeling a child as distant or aloof, we might consider whether they are thoughtful and observant.

Marissa Mayer certainly has her detractors, as Nicholas Carlson points out. Nonetheless, her story is a strong reminder that shy and introverted people bring significant strengths to any organization. As a society, it is important that we continue to nurture children of all personality types.

My wife, Barb, and I are the co-authors of Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child.

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Barb is on Twitter and Facebook.

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