5 reasons that shy people can make the best leaders

You're not doomed to be a wallflower.

by Martin Hurworth
Last Updated: 11 Jan 2019

Shyness and leadership are two qualities that are incompatible in business - or so we’ve been told. Shy people just don’t make good leaders, do they? Well yes they can, they can be some of the best if they find the right ways to use that natural shyness to their advantage.

Real leadership isn’t about over the top, Silicon Valley-style enthusiasm or theatrical smartphone launch events. The personal brand bandwagon has led to the misconception that being a good orator automatically makes you a good leader. However talking and leading don’t automatically come hand in hand.

It can be learned

My parents always called me shy and this was an easy label to maintain as I became an engineer. I can painfully remember in my early 20s an absolute inability to talk in meetings when a particular senior manager was running a meeting. I could not get the words out as my panic flowed through me.

Fast-forward 20 years and there I was earlier this year, standing on stage at London’s National History Museum, giving a speech to 500 people, and I never wanted it to end. For me, this was the culmination of two years’ hard, painstaking work to transform my natural introverted personality from a weakness to a strength.

Lifelong habits can seem hard, almost impossible to break, but I’m proof that the skills of leadership can be learned.

You have to be brave

To lead, you have to look at yourself in ways which are sometimes uncomfortable. For a natural introvert its takes a leap of faith to think that people will be interested in hearing what you have to say when the voice of doubt creeps in. But when you gut tells you no, sometimes you need to say yes, whether it’s a speaking opportunity, a networking event or a big pitch in front of potential investors.

Listen before you speak

When I became an MD I discovered that my old style of leadership - introverted and inherited, warts and all, after 20 years’ in engineering - wasn’t going to deliver what was needed. As the head of an SME that was growing fast, I needed to bring people with me so I sought some help.

A business coach challenged me to start having real conversations with the people in different areas of my life, beginning each new conversation with a clear intent and objective. Shy people are used to listening rather than talking, so they’re well placed to excel at this incredibly effective but often overlooked trait of great leadership. Long after your words are forgotten, it’s how you make people feel that really matters.

Tell tales that turn heads

When it comes to leadership, storytelling can be so much more powerful than simply telling. By using people’s imagination and adding colour, feelings and emotion into your stories - contrary to conventional business wisdom. Telling stories allows you to bring real emotion and trust into every conversation you have at work. That way people will remember the way your stories make them feel, long after the things you’ve said have been forgotten. They’ll do amazing work, be more fulfilled in their jobs and they’ll follow you.

Practice makes perfect

In my experience, shy people excel at one side of leadership; what you might call ‘the practical stuff’ and instructing teams on how to do the role. That has its place, especially when a deadline is looming, but real leadership needs this and something more: being able to make people believe in you. That requires public speaking, and there’s nothing a shy person fears more than that.

It just takes practise. By developing (and then rehearsing) real stories of your own, your triumphs, your challenges and what motivates you, you can start to get your emotion across to your audience. It’s as if you’re talking to each person in the room individually. Your personality will come through, and they, in turn, will be more likely to believe what you’re saying, listen and really take in what you’re telling them.

Martin Hurworth is managing director of Harvey Water Softeners

Image credit: manfredrichter/Pixabay


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