Yes, Introverts Can Be Effective School Leaders

Editor’s Note: This is an adaptation from the author’s new book, School Leadership from A to Z, How to Lead Well Without Losing Your Way
Commenting on how exhausted I was at the end of each workday, my partner would say to me often, “Everyone else gets the best you.”
Sadly, she was right.
When I was a division head and head of school, I struggled to honor healthy wellness practices and work-life boundaries. Too often, I limped home from work, ignored phone calls from close friends, and passed on opportunities to cultivate community outside of my school world. I became desperate for time to recharge, and I’d drive home in the quiet, not even listening to the music I love so much. Grasping for every bit of personal battery renewal before another day of school life, I’d drive back to work the next morning in silence, too. I flexed to flourish at school, and as a result, I floundered where it mattered most: with my family and friends. Why? Because I’m an introvert—living in an extrovert’s world. 
I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality assessment a few times in my professional career, and it’s always confirmed: I am an introvert, which according to Merriam-Webster, is “a typically reserved or quiet person who tends to be introspective and enjoys spending time alone.” The MBTI adds a crucially important addition to this standard definition: While extroverts get energy from being around people, introverts are drained of energy from being around people. And while introverts like and value people just as much as extroverts do, there can be a real personal cost.
Leading a school is no easy task these days no matter a person’s personality—extroverts are typically more visible in leadership roles because of their outgoing disposition. But so many qualities are important for effective leadership, including many that introverts innately possess. The challenge for introverts is that their well-being can be compromised, as they can become drained when doing people-focused work. It’s important that they be strategic to manage their energy levels to meet the needs of both school and home. 

Leaders and Personality Type

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain implies that leadership is an extroverted game. Leadership, and in particular independent school leadership, is a people-focused business. Extroverts are wired to do this work well—to be “on,” to make the small talk, shake all the hands, and kiss all the babies. Human interaction dominates a school leader’s day—scheduled meetings, impromptu meetings, emergency meetings, surprise meetings, and then a few more meetings (and emails). Since extroverts get energy from interactions with others, a full day of meetings results in an extroverted leader’s batteries being relationally full at the end of the day. As a result, they go home with energy for their families and friends. Extroverts experience enervation and the occasional “Sunday Blues,” too, but the constant connecting with others central to school leadership is what fuels them and keeps them coming back for more. 
Cain’s work is dedicated to highlighting the many contributions introverts have to offer communities and teams. For example, introverts’ listening skills and inclination to create space for all to contribute tend to help teams flourish when it comes to ideation and inclusion. Team members feel heard and valued, and so team morale tends to be high. Also, with solitude serving as their primary battery charger, introverted leaders also thrive as strategic thinkers. A few hours of quiet, or sequestered thought time, is a gift from the gods for introverts. And what they produce on behalf of the school as a result is a cornerstone strength of the introverted leader, whether that be a compassionately crafted community email or a game-changing strategic initiative.
Just as extroverts have to flex to display strengths that come more naturally to introverts, introverts also need to adjust to ensure they are serving both their schools and themselves in healthy and helpful ways. Full disclosure: I never mastered managing my introverted energy drain. If you’re an introvert, you get it. The struggle is real. But, over the years, I did stumble upon some tips and tricks that helped immensely. Below are a few of my favorites.
Make an appearance. Stay at any after-hour social gathering for the very minimum amount of time acceptable. Arrive, find the host, personally thank those who helped make the magic happen, walk the full expanse of the venue saying hello to the masses while dodging lengthy conversations, and then walk out the back door. Be seen by all and speak to as few as possible. Truly, no one will know the difference. You will have optimized both your role as a public figure and your need to protect your energy on behalf of your private life.                            
Choose your seat wisely. At the game, don’t sit in the bleachers. You’re more likely to get pounced on by parents than enjoy watching the kids compete. Instead, position yourself where parents and staff can easily see you but can’t easily get to you. Football game? Be on the sideline (away from the team). School play? Arrive close to the start so you can walk in and be seen by all but not have to speak to anyone before the show. You might have to talk to folks at intermission, but at the end, sneak out the back door.
Be wary of the “woo.” According to Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment, a helpful tool that outlines 34 individual talents a person can potentially possess, “woo” is the strength of people who “love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over. They derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection with someone.” I love people immensely and get energy from deep, meaningful conversations. But the “meeting new people and winning them over” part of a cocktail party or parent event is an introvert’s kryptonite (and an extrovert’s superpower). I found wooing to be exhausting, and in retrospect, I don’t think I did myself or the schools I served any favors by trying to flex into this skill set. I would have been better off just being myself—the guy at the party who is super happy to talk to you, but not the social butterfly working the room. If woo isn’t your thing, then save your energy by not pretending that is.   
Keep Saturday and Sunday sacred. Sure, there will be some command performances: the annual fundraiser (an event you have to attend to the end, sorry!), back-to-school nights, school dances, a state championship or two, etc. But, other than these biggies, introverts would be wise to stay as far away from campus as possible on the weekends. Even big donor dinners are better scheduled for school nights. Yes, it is a tough ask to entertain on a Tuesday, but better two hours on a weeknight than five hours on a weekend! How to say “no” to an invite? Well, if you have a partner, who better to blame or say you need to check in with before accepting? Use the partner card gratuitously. No partner to leverage? Well, then please take it from Ms. Manners and from me: It is morally acceptable to say you already have plans. Yes, a date with yourself and a book counts! 
If you are an extrovert, congratulations! You are on your way to being an effective school leader and are shielded from much of the energy drain introverts must endure. If you’re an introvert, I invite you to an expanded awareness of how your energy levels wax and wane. For your own well-being and the benefit of those closest to you, seek savvy ways to minimize the introvert impact of the social side of school life. Because when you do, your school gets to benefit from the many gifts you bring to leadership. Even more important, your families and friends will get the best you, too.
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Bradley James Davies

Bradley James Davies is a school leadership consultant and coach with two decades of experience teaching, coaching, and leading independent schools across all grade levels as a dean, division head, and head of school.