This post originally appeared in US News & World Report, here.
When I was a child, I realized that I liked being alone – and that most people didn’t. When other girls begged to go to sleepovers or to have playdates after school, I was happier alone in my room, cozy under the covers reading a book. Even my choice of friends reflected this preference: My best friend knew that when she came over she should find something to play with in my house while I did my own thing, sometimes in another room. We got along great.
This wasn’t easy as a kid, and it’s not much easier as an adult. The world loves extroverts, those people who are always “on,” who love interacting and engaging with people and who look totally comfortable with the spotlight on them. The people we see in the news every day – politicians, CEOs, media stars – are all perceived as extroverts, and their extroversion seems integral to their success. So where are the role models for an introvert who wants to lead?
When I speak to groups of young women, I ask them to raise their hands if they think the world would be a better place if more women were in power. Every hand in the room goes up, no matter where I am in the world. But when I ask them to raise their hands if they want to be that woman in power, almost all of the hands stay down. Why don’t they want to run? Well, there are lots of reasons, but one I am so tired of hearing is: “I am a behind-the-scenes person.” When I dig deeper into what they mean by this, they often tell me that they are introverts, and that they could never do the things you need to be a candidate: ask people for money, speak in public, do media interviews, knock on strangers’ doors.
The reason I am bothered by this response is that I strongly believe that anyone can learn to lead. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, speaking in public is hard. You are not going to be good at it the first few times you do it, no matter what your personality, and you only get better through lots of practice and experience. The same goes for asking people for money or their vote. We are all uneasy with asking others to invest in us, and it takes real skill and practice to feel comfortable with the ask. No one is born with these skills, and everyone can learn them.
As an introvert, I know what I am talking about here. Years ago I had the opportunity to become president of the Women Under Forty PAC, a group I had cofounded. I really wanted the job, but I knew that stepping up to president would mean doing all the things I “couldn’t” do as an introvert, particularly public speaking. I had a long talk with myself and realized that this was a fear I needed to overcome because I was deeply invested in the mission of the organization. A few weeks later I was invited to speak on a panel at American University, and I was both incredibly nervous and pretty terrible. But the next time I was invited to speak at an event I was better, and the time after that I even enjoyed myself a bit, and the time after that I felt fairly competent.
Now, as the president of the nonprofit Running Start, I probably look like an extrovert. I speak in public frequently, throw myself into every networking opportunity I can find, and fundraise like a pro. But I am still an introvert: After a speaking engagement or networking with folks at an event, I recharge by being alone. While some people get their energy from being around other people, I get my energy from being by myself. Once I understood this, leadership got easier.
In Susan Cain’s excellent book “Quiet,” she posits that some of the best leaders are actually introverts because introverts tend to think before they act and to focus more on other people than on themselves. And clearly many of the people in the public eye who we think of as extroverts are actually introverts in disguise. So I make sure the young women I speak to know that it takes people from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of personalities to produce the best leaders – and that they should stop hiding behind the scenes if their real talents lie in taking the lead.
Susannah Wellford founded two organizations to raise the political voice of young women: Running Start (which she now leads) and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee. Susannah previously worked in the Clinton White House and for Senator Wyche Fowler. Ms. Wellford is a graduate of UVA School of Law and Davidson College. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her twins, Ben and James.