Imagine the following situation. The director of your work organization is retiring next month and has proposed you to run the organization as you have worked together on several projects and he regards you as highly skilled. Applicants have to go through a selection process, which is completed by a presentation or a public speech of the best candidates who present their past work and vision for the future to other employees. Even though you are honored, you are nervous because of the selection interview, but you are most afraid of the presentation as it involves public speaking which you dread. At the same time, you are aware that this momentmay be a key point in your career. Will you let shyness rob you of further career development and opportunities or are you willing to step out of your comfort zone?
What is a typical leader like?
When thinking about whether you are suitable for a leadership position in a working organization, you first think about what qualities a typical leader has and makes a leader a good leader. A good leader is typically regarded as someone with well-developed communication, organizational, and leadership skills.
When we imagine a typical leader, we most often imagine someone who is determined, dominant, and assertive. In traditional societies these traits typically belong to men. In Western societies, too, men are still commonly louder, more confident and dominant than women. This may also be one of the reasons why we have far more men than women in leadership positions. Women are often shy and reserved, but does that make them bad leaders? Can you imagine a shy leader?
Many great and important leaders in the past have been shy, including Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, if one can believe the internet. Shyness is a tendency to feel awkward, anxious, or tense during social gatherings, especially with strangers. Very shy people may also experience physical symptoms such as flushing, sweating, heart palpitations, or an upset stomach, as well as negative feelings about themselves, worries about how others look at them, and heaviness after washing away from social interactions.
On the other hand, shyness is often associated with highly valued personality traits that are important for leadership. Take qualities such as thoughtfulness, creativity, good problem-solving ability and you have a great leader.
But can shyness in leadership be an obstacle? It can make it difficult to make public appearances and speeches, defend one's own opinion, expose oneself in interaction with others, assertively communicate in meetings and participate in debates. Shy people often hesitate to express their opinion and prefer to keep it to themselves.
What to do if you are chosen to be a leader?
You have been elected leader. Don't panic, you were chosen for a reason. The reason are your countless strengths, such as experience, creativity, professional competence, critical thinking, ingenuity, practicality or thoughtfulness. Cling to these qualities as much as possible, develop them further and be proud of them. Focus on developing good relationships with co-workers, albeit out of shyness first with those you know better.
Shy leaders can compensate for their weaknesses, such as a lack of assertiveness, in different ways. Prepare well for public assignments or presentations, meetings or debates. Overpreparation will minimize the chances of you becoming awkward or unsure of yourself while speaking. As part of the preparation, imagine that you are in the situation you are preparing for; picture faces of attendees and you presenting.
As you prepare for meetings, focus on potential concerns of employees so that you are prepared for a response you can use if employees challenge your plans. If you prefer phone calls or Zoom meetings you can maximize them instead of office meetings. You can also completely replace shorter meetings with written communication, such as e-mails, if that makes work easier and less time-consuming for you. Believe me, others will appreciate the fact that you only opt for meetings that are absolutely necessary. The pandemic laid perfect ground for online meetings, phone calls, and e-mails.
How to overcome shyness?
Do you need to overcome shyness in order to be a successful leader? Absolutely not. It is important, however, that shyness does not hinder you in personal and career development and that it does not rob you of life opportunities. I encourage you to grab every opportunity that comes your way, despite the fact that you are scared and uncomfortable at the thought of exposure. Exposure to “threatening” situations will become easier each time, until shyness becomes a part of you that used to limit you, but today you have freed yourself from it. We want to become comfortable with shyness up to the point that despite shyness we dare to stand up, express our opinion, defend it and demand what we deserve.
There is virtually no research examining the relationship between leadership and shyness, nor does any research explain why shy individuals are less often chosen as leaders. Shy leaders therefore remain interesting to explore in the future. I personally believe that dominant in authoritarian leaders are pasée. In the future, leaders will be empathetic, respectful and sensitive to employees, inclusive, motivated and motivating.
So if you find yourself in a similar situation as was envisioned at the beginning of the article, I hope you find enough strength in yourself to overcome the challenges of shyness and break free. This is your chance to change the world and anchored stereotypes about what a good leader is like. Say what you want, but when you overcome your weaknesses and improve, that's when you really did something good for yourself.