Lead or Follow? An Introvert Weighs the Challenges

As an activist, am I better off as a worker bee or could I lead?

Posted Nov 08, 2017

Library of Congress
Source: Library of Congress

I never planned on becoming a political activist, nor did I want to. But then stuff happened, and I found myself compelled to get involved. And not only that, but because I'm also a bit of a control freak, I find myself taking tentative steps into leadership.

But being a leader isn’t easy, and it’s especially taxing to the introvert in me. You can’t blow things off if you’re responsible for making them happen. You have to show up and engage. Sometimes you have to pester people to follow through on commitments. Sometimes (shudder) the telephone.

I’ve been doing a year-end review of my first year of activism, assessing my strengths and weakness. I’m trying to decide whether I’m up for another year like last year, and considering whether I should take it up a notch to greater leadership, or ratchet it down and stay more of a worker-bee.

In the course of this assessment, I chatted with Jennifer Kahnweiler, global speaker and the author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. (The link takes you to the updated edition with new research, coming in March 2018. Click here for the 2013 release, for immediate gratification.) Jennifer, who is also author of The Genius of Opposites: How Introverts and Extroverts Achieve Extraordinary Results Together, is an extrovert herself, but understands and appreciates the qualities introverts bring to the workplace.

She indulged me (and now I hope you will too) while I talked through my strengths and weaknesses as a neophyte introverted leader. And maybe you'll have thoughts to add.

Online activism, for better and worse.

My primary duty with one organization is administrating the small (495 people) Facebook group, I try to keep posts educational and action-oriented—and no memes. I’m informative, if not scintillating. I try not be annoying and think I succeed. Introverts are pretty good at not being annoying, in my opinion. We tend to just hang out quietly.

But my group also doesn’t have a lot of discussion, so I don’t know how much engagement the page gets. It might be a livelier spot if I were more willing to assert opinions and stir the pot. But ugh, that requires putting myself out there, demanding attention. Not to mention time, since, like many introverts, I’m not one to shoot from the hip. Every post, every comment, would have to be painstakingly crafted. Makes me tired to think of it. Do I want to tap my inner extrovert and try to pump up the volume on the page, even recklessly?

I’m also overly reliant on email to communicate with colleagues. Not so good. "The most effective leaders are the ones who meet with team members on a regular basis, or talk on the phone,” Jennifer said. “They don’t just email.”

Gulp. Yes, I’m sure that’s true. But it’s sooo much easier to just zap an email to a bunch of people and feel like I’ve gotten the job done. Even if all I get back in response is crickets, which is often the case.

Do I want to put effort into more face-to-face engagement?

To meet or not to meet

I know a few local activists who are everywhere all the time and not shy about posting selfies of their everywhere all the timeness. Everybody knows these people and pays attention. Me, not so much. I stink at networking. Badly. I go to events and slip in and out as quickly and inconspicuously as I can. This does not exactly make me a notable spokesperson for a cause. I'm envious of these out-there people, but am extremely uncomfortable with the idea of emulating them.

And when it comes to formal meetings I am, unsurprisingly, in my element behind the scenes: booking speakers, finding venues, preparing materials. I let others be the face of the meeting as often as possible. But if I want to be a leader, convening and running meetings is part of the job. 

Jennifer said the best volunteer leader she ever worked with always had an agenda for meetings. “You felt there was a focus and we weren’t just coming to bitch.” And, she said, the woman always sent a followup email after meetings, outlining what was planned and what needed to be done.

I’ve done okay running small meetings on my own using exactly those strategies. I want my meetings to be quick and efficient with minimal meandering. I’m pretty good at making a plan and sticking to it, and at email followup. But then things get sketchy.

Beyond delegating.

Making a plan, recruiting volunteers, and delegating tasks are the easy parts. Getting volunteers to come through is a challenge all its own, and not one I excel at.

I don’t want to be annoying. I don’t want to be a nag. I don’t want to be demanding. So my m.o. has been to delegate and then step back, assuming people, once they have volunteered for a task, will take care of business. If they don’t, I’m much more likely to sigh deeply and do it myself than chase people down. Or just give up and let plans collapse.

Jennifer promises that, like learning to say “no,” learning to delegate properly is life changing, and that people who learn how never go back. But I’m just learning that delegating is more than saying, “Okay, you do that.” It also means building in accountability—deciding what the next steps are and when they should be accomplished. It might require coaching people on how to get things done. It might mean reminding people—or what feels like nagging to me. It might even mean calling people on the telephone.

Not the telephone!

When it comes down to that, I have to wonder if I’m cut out for this work at all.

Following up and not following up

I recently had a volunteer ghost on a project for reasons I still don’t know. She was all over it, and then she stopped responding to my emails.

I was disappointed, and my feelings were hurt--which probably isn't appropriate in this situation. But I'm a sensitive sort.

But did I pick up the phone? Nope. I just grit my teeth and let the ball drop. 

“In email obviously you’re not getting the data you needed to know—yes or no, and what’s the barrier,” Jennifer said. “That was where a phone call would have been good. You want to match the medium to the message.”

Like many introverts, I also tend to be fairly nonconfrontational, so the thought of picking up the phone and confronting, however gently, someone about not coming through just about gives me hives.

“You’re saying, ‘I would rather resent and avoid her,’” Jennifer said.

Well, yes, I guess I am saying that. While at the same time, I like this woman and would love for her to stay engaged. So I’ve painted myself into a corner. One might say I’ve painted myself into the introvert’s corner. And it’s hard to lead from here. So I’m either going to have to give up the idea of leading, or shove myself out of the corner and do some things that feel counter to my nature.

Which will it be? I’ll let you know when I decide. I’d love to hear from introverts who lead teams about their experiences.