Hello My Name is “Introvert”
One of my first jobs was as a Resident Director at McKendree University. You remember your RD or RA from college — that perpetually cheerful person who organized orientation events, knew everyone’s name and hometown, and served as your de facto big sibling.
I hadn’t thought about how this job might not be well suited for an introvert like me until the moment the students arrived and I heard them moving and talking outside my door. I remember standing terrified behind that door and then forcing myself to open it and adopt this cheery persona, this cartoonish version of myself. I kept that up for ten years.
Everyone Wants To Be An Extrovert - Right?
As I progressed from Administrator to Director and then finally to Dean of Student Affairs at the Stephen F. Austin State University, I hid being an introvert because I thought it was wrong, even selfish. Our societal portrait of leadership is a person who’s outgoing and liked by everyone, so that’s what I tried to be.
People think that being an extrovert means that you like being around people, and therefore an introvert “ doesn’t like people,” but that’s not true. There’s just no way I would have chosen to spend my life working with college students if I didn’t like people!
People also tend to think that introverts have a fear of public speaking, but that’s also a fallacy. If I were given a choice between speaking in the Cowboys Stadium or mingling in a room with twenty people, I would choose Cowboys Stadium every time. I don’t have a fear of speaking, but it is a little scary for me to be in an intimate environment where I don’t have time to plan what I will say.
Becoming A Leader
Adam Peck, Dean of Student Affairs at SFA. Source: Adam Peck
As I grew older and more secure in my job, I began to worry less about what other people thought, and I started to see more of the upside in being an introvert.
Now, I teach classes on leadership and communication and I teach the “Carnegie Principle,” which is an introverted take on leadership. Often people think others will like them based on what they say, but it is really more about how people feel about themselves when they are around you. Being a leader is really about being a good listener, and being a good listener is an innate introvert quality.
Earlier in my years as an university administrator, I tried to handle unhappy parents by responding to their complaints point by point, or even by arguing with them. Then I realized the parents simply wanted to be heard.
I started telling parents that I was just calling to hear their complaint, and that I would take notes and call them back later with a solution. But most of the time, parents will say at the end of the conversation there’s no need to call back. They have faith that I’d heard them and will address the problem. I used to think I needed to sway their opinion, but now I get that people want to be understood more than they want me to have an answer.
I’ve found similar lessons in preparing for brainstorming sessions, the structure of which really plays to the strengths of extroverts. Brainstorming relies on quickly seeing concepts and immediately sharing ideas, a pattern that can leave introverts like me feeling uncomfortable. However, if the topics are sent out 48 hours in advance, then I can prepare and contribute. I’ve learned to be an advocate for myself and my working style by telling people, “hey, this is what I need so that I can work effectively and be successful”.
The author in his office with colleagues. Source: Travis for Texas
Embracing the introverted side of myself has resulted in changes at home as well as in my career. My wife is the definition of an extrovert. She used to interpret my desire to read in the evening as pulling away, and she would be hurt because she thought I didn’t want to spend time with her. But being honest and explaining that while I love her, I also need alone time to recharge, has made a tremendous difference. It’s not personal — it’s just not my preference to always be around other people. I have to find time for myself to read, or simply be alone and recharge.
A couple years ago I thought, I can be an authentic introvert. Now that I am secure in my job, I worry less about what my supervisors think. They allow me to work independently and have faith that I will get it done. I give myself time to respond to things and think them over, since I work most effectively in that manner. I am more accepting of things, and less likely to start talking before I think. I am an unapologetically authentic introvert, a dean, and a leader.
The author in a local theater production. Source: Daily Sentinel
Adam Peck, PhD is the Dean of Student Affairs and Graduate Faculty in Student Affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University.