Leading as an Introvert

Jewel-Lucy
Lucy Jewel
Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law

The prototypical lawyer-leader is often viewed as an alpha type: brash, competitive, with a silver tongue. These are the typical traits of an extrovert, a person who savors sociality, thinks out loud, and thrives in stimulating settings. But introverts – quiet, introspective, and inquisitive – can lead just as effectively as extroverts. Introverts can lead as lawyers.

Two relatively recent books, both written by lawyers, speak this truth.  Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking delves into U.S. cultural history and explains that while extroverts have a lock on stereotypical leadership traits, introverts possess enormous leadership capacity. Cain’s book struck a nerve. Her Ted Talk has been viewed over 19 million times.  According to Cain, both introverts and extroverts can be effective leaders. Introvert leaders are especially good at delegating tasks to individuals who take initiative and collaboratively contribute to the problem solving process. Heidi Brown’s book, The Introverted Lawyer, tackles the specific issue of introverted attorneys. Brown provides a step-by-step method for turning introversion and shyness from a weakness into a strength.  Her book would have been enormously helpful to me in law school and I highly recommend it to any introverted law students who feel challenged by the many extroverted aspects of law school.

Both of these books explain that U.S. business culture, and lawyering in particular, is built on an extroversion ideal. As a card-carrying introvert, this was a difficult lesson to learn as I entered law school. As a 1L, I had good critical thinking skills and talent as a writer, but I was shy and preferred to solve problems in my head before sharing those thoughts out loud.  Within the first few weeks of school, I froze in my seat when my Torts professor called on me and asked me to consider an issue that wasn’t in the casebook.  I went down in flames, flubbing and faltering, and felt terrible afterward. I dreaded any moment where I had to speak off-the-cuff.

I gradually became more comfortable with public speaking as I took more skills classes. In my trial practice class, I fell in love the with process of using logic and persuasion to craft a compelling trial narrative. I prepared intensely and quietly, just me, my thoughts, and my notes. I practiced my opening statement, outlined every possible path that could occur in the direct examinations, cross-examinations, and every possible objection. I started talking to myself, verbalizing points while driving in my car, taking a shower, or cooking. I won my final trial.

After graduation, in my law practice, I found other helpful hacks for my introversion. When the managing partner asked me to leave him a voice mail (introverts hate the phone) that summarized my research on an important case, I practiced what I was going to say with the phone up against my ear, probably three or four times before I left the final message. The partner was immensely pleased with my performance. Currently, I still talk to myself nearly every day. It helps me immensely, as I prepare for academic presentations, for teaching, and for other public speaking engagements

Some aspects of law practice naturally lend themselves to an introverted style.  Research and writing a brief is a highly intense, introverted process. In terms of persuasion effect, Fourth Circuit Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert has stated that a brief counts three times as much as an oral argument. I would imagine that contract drafting, outside of the boardroom give-and-take, is a similarly introverted process. Further, an introverted style of leadership helps lawyers lead their clients. To collaborate with clients in a client-centered fashion, the special skillsets of introverts are invaluable – listening actively, considering all vantage points, and deploying practical wisdom to fulfil the client’s goals. These are the attributes of lawyers that clients appreciate.  The alpha type lawyer who storms in and dominates the conversation, does most of the talking, and tells the client what to do – this is not the best model of law practice.

Law leadership comes in many styles. I encourage everyone to find their natural style and mine it for the leadership strengths that inhere within.

5 Comments

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  1. As an introvert, this resonates with me. I have not come across those books you mentioned, but now I cannot wait to read them. Thanks!

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  2. I am a card carrying introvert as well. Found out in the War College that introverts get their energy from being alone, while extroverts need a crowd to charge their batteries. I ended up my service as a two star General. I sill covet my alone time….

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  3. This can also certainly be applied in sales and interactions with clients. Like anything, practice is the key. Start with a group who shares a similar outside interest or hobby and attend consistently. People will get to know you and you will feel more comfortable over time as you share your passions with like minded friends. Use this as practice for work and other personal interactions. Practice and don’t quit. If you are uncomfortable you are probably growing.

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  4. ” I went down in flames, flubbing and faltering, and felt terrible afterward. I dreaded any moment where I had to speak off-the-cuff.” IMHO this isn’t introversion, it’s shyness. None of the introverts I know (and that includes me) dread speaking off-the-cuff or in front of groups; we just find being around people draining. Likewise, “I practiced what I was going to say with the phone up against my ear, probably three or four times before I left the final message” speaks of anxiety, not introversion.

    “Introvert leaders are especially good at delegating tasks to individuals who take initiative”? IOW, they “lead from behind”? My words, they fail.

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