What I Learned about Leadership from My Introverted Best Friend - Verily
It’s not all about being onstage.

On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I scored as an off-the-charts “E”; on the Strong Interest Inventory Test, I ranked incredibly high in the “social” category. Underlying my answers were many of the hallmark qualities of an extrovert: I like attention, take charge when no one else will, and am good at directing others.

For most of my life, I’ve gravitated toward other extroverts. Then, during sorority recruitment in college, I befriended Molly.

Vermont born-and-raised, outdoor-exploring, long-distance running, dry-humored, introverted Molly didn’t exactly fit into my interests or historical friend model—in fact, she occasionally tells me that I “adopted” her as my introvert. Initially, I didn’t understand why she didn’t want the same bursting social calendar I kept, or why she preferred hanging out with a small circle of friends rather than a crowd.

But our junior year, we both ended up in leadership positions for our sorority. Working with Molly didn’t just teach me more about introversion—it taught me about leadership, too. Here are a few lessons I learned.

01. Listening adds value.

Molly’s job involved compliance with the organization’s national standards. In this role, she had to have difficult conversations about personal behaviors, meet with people one-on-one, and work with multiple advisors—all of which depended on her receptive demeanor.

Because I had chosen to surround myself with friends who ticked off all the listed qualities of the stereotypical extrovert, I had always pictured introverts as quiet, socially awkward, and not willing to speak up. Molly quickly busted that myth. For the first time, we attended the same meetings, and I was surprised to find her more outspoken than usual—especially in a room full of people. Everyone in our 150-member sorority knew Molly’s name and her role, and they frequently approached her to help address various issues. I realized Molly’s assertiveness was fueled by her ability to listen.

I asked her how she handled such a large interpersonal role as an introvert.

“Any conversation that’s past superficial small talk will be easier with someone who’s an introvert, even though first impressions might not be as easy for one,” she explained. “We’re better at listening and taking things in for later conversations, rather than driving the whole thing ourselves.”

It didn’t take me long to learn that effectiveness in my role demanded I become a better listener, too.

02. Leadership means embracing unseen work.

Because most of her responsibilities were confidential, Molly’s role was usually thankless, more often talked about in the abstract than seen in action.

“For an introvert, being a leader isn’t always being the most outspoken person and telling everyone what you think all the time,” she told me. “It’s more working behind the scenes to make things better.”

As someone more likely to be onstage belting out karaoke on a Saturday night than watching from the audience, I was impressed by Molly’s willingness to let her work go unnoticed. But even though she genuinely preferred a largely hidden role, I realized that a big part of leadership for everyone—myself and other extroverts included—is working for the good of the team and organization, rather than for praise or status.

During Molly’s tenure in her position, I saw our chapter grow stronger and take more definitive stances about issues that had slid by in the past, with our leadership especially benefiting from her presence.

03. Leadership teams benefit from diversity.

Just doing a quick Google search reveals that the introvert/extrovert binary continues to fascinate both researchers and the general public. But while many articles tend to pit the two types against each other, my experience working with Molly taught me that if anything, leadership teams work best when they have both introverts and extroverts.

As I stepped back and looked at what Molly and I had accomplished in our roles, there was no clear marker for who had been more successful at leading. What was clear, however, was that we were a more successful team together because of our differences, not in spite of them.

This realization hit home for me during our last time leading sorority recruitment, when Molly and I were assigned to the same team to talk to potential new members. Both of us could draw people out of their shells, whether by loud stories or intent listening, or a mixture of both. During the process, we built on each other’s conversations and strengths to make people feel welcome, heard, and valued. Some typical markers of extroversion and introversion came into play, but we were able to lead in a complementary, rather than an oppositional, way.

Not only did our different styles aid our joint success, we both also became more effective leaders by working together. Through our friendship, I’ve learned how to listen better, and she has learned to speak up more. We’ve come to value our differences for the variety of strengths they bring to the table.

Molly still likes to joke about being my adopted introvert—but I could just as truthfully say she took me under her wing as her adopted extrovert.