To succeed as an introvert headteacher, just believe in the wonder of you…

16th March 2018 at 00:00
Charismatic, outspoken characters are more likely to hold the top jobs in schools, right? Well, surprisingly, not necessarily. Christina Quaine explores how a little less conversation can lead to a little more action

Dani Lang is the headteacher at Brimsdown Primary School in Enfield – a job that involves regularly addressing audiences of pupils, teachers and parents and leading school meetings, as well as speaking in front of peers at headteacher conferences.

Yet Lang describes herself as an introvert.

“I’m an organiser. I prefer to get on with things in the background, I’m not the person who always puts themselves out there – and I don’t particularly love public speaking,” she says.

You might wonder why an introvert would be attracted to a headteacher role in the first place. After all, we’re used to more outgoing types atop the ladder. Research published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that introverts are less likely than extroverts to emerge as leaders, because they are more prone to feeling negatively about leadership, and those negative thoughts become a barrier.

However, there is also growing evidence that more reserved types can not only be the boss just as successfully as extroverts, they can sometimes do it better. In her 2012 TED talk, Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that research “has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do. Because when they are managing proactive employees, they are much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas.”

An extroverted leader, she argues, can unwittingly get so excited about things that other people’s ideas never get aired.

This is something Lang relates to. She believes her quiet nature allows her colleagues to thrive.

“I am most comfortable when I’m coaching other people and letting them take ownership of, and credit for, their work,” she explains. “I’m good at listening and helping members of my team to talk through ideas so that they come to their own decisions.”

Introversion explained

Being a school leader as an introvert, then, is not about trying to overcome your reserved nature, but learning how to work with it and to make the most of your capabilities.

So, what does it mean to be an introvert? And how can introverted school leaders positively harness the power of their quiet temperaments?

John Hackston, chartered psychologist and head of thought leadership at OPP, a group of business psychologists – and yes, another introvert – says that there are a lot of misconceptions about introversion.

“There’s an idea that introverts are shy and tend to hide in corners, but that’s no more true than saying that extroverts spend all their time dancing on tables,” he explains.

The difference between the two personality types, he continues, is where they direct their attention and energy.

“Introverts tend to live more in the world inside their head, while extroverts are more at home in the outside world, with people around them,” says Hackston.

That’s not to say that introverts fall apart if they have to do teamwork or speak out in front of a crowd, it’s just that “it takes more energy for them to do so. After a while, they need time alone to recharge”.

Accepting this is the first step towards succeeding in leadership as an introvert. For someone such as Lang, acknowledging that she isn’t at her most comfortable standing in front of an audience allows her to use this to her advantage.

“I tend to keep public talks short and sweet, clear and factual. Maybe that means I get to the point quickly,” she says.

Making others aware of your processes can also help you to capitalise on your introversion and avoid being misunderstood, suggests Hacktson. For example, while extroverts will typically vocalise their decision-making process, introverts tend to make decisions inside their heads.

“There might be a pause before they voice their final decision, whereas for an extrovert, you’ll hear them talking about it,” he says. “If you ask an introvert a question, they might pause because they’re thinking. This can lead to introverts being misunderstood or underestimated. Whereas an extrovert is likely to talk straight away. The disadvantage there is that what you hear from an extrovert is often a work in progress and not a final answer. With an introvert, you may well get their final answer.”

Cain, meanwhile, is so convinced by the advantages of a gentler side of school management that she has come up with an initiative aimed at helping introverts to succeed. Her Quiet Schools Network trains Quiet Ambassadors in US schools – members of teaching staff who serve as experts in introversion. These ambassadors are tasked with tapping into the power of quiet leadership and fostering a more inclusive school culture that doesn’t simply favour the loudest voices.

“It can be an enormous benefit for introverts to serve as school leaders, not only because they’ll understand the needs of the quieter half of the class, but also because introverted leaders tend to listen well and encourage others’ ideas to shine,” says Cain.

Confidence tricks

Damith Bandara, assistant head at Temple Grove Academy in Tunbridge Wells and another self-professed introvert, agrees that cascading your approach to leadership down to the classroom is another way for introverted leaders to make the most of their abilities.

“For me, it’s not about who can get their hand up and answer the question first,” he says. “I like to give children thinking time in class. If you’ve got introverts sitting there thinking, ‘please don’t pick me,’ they become so worried about being picked that they forget the question. It’s about giving children an environment in which they can think and learn.”

Despite the benefits, there does still seem to be a stigma attached to being an introvert. After contacting dozens of school headteachers, deputies, assistants and department heads, to ask if any introverts would be willing to contribute to this piece, many said that while they identified with introversion, they weren’t keen to admit it.

Perhaps, then, the most important piece of advice for introverted school leaders is to believe that you are up to the job – and to show others that you are, too.

“There’s some evidence that introverts may be less confident in their own abilities than extroverts, so they may not go for leadership roles. Leadership involves spending lots of time with people, so introverts may think they won’t enjoy it when, actually, research suggests that extroverts and introverts will be as good as each other as leaders,” says Hackston.

While the ratio of introverts to extroverts in the general population is around 50:50, according to Hackston, it’s important to remember that this is only one facet of your personality. “Everyone has an extroverted side and an introverted side,” he says.

So is it high time we dialled down the volume and saw more hushed types at the helm? A growing body of evidence and “quiet” revolutionaries such as Cain and Hackston suggest that it is – and that it starts with reinforcing the belief that introverted teachers are just as suited to the top jobs as their more outgoing counterparts.

Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist

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