You go (shy) girl!

“I think it’s important for shy girls to be able to be seen as leaders too,” said the, no doubt, shy girl sitting among a circle of 20 or so middle schoolers at a girls’ leadership summer camp. We were brainstorming a list of leadership qualities that we–not the media, not parents, not teachers, not even friends–deemed critical.

I thought this point was not only brave, but very astute. As I make the rounds of girls’ leadership development programs and camps this summer (I’m thrilled to be headed to The Girls Leadership Institute next month, co founded by one of my favorite human beings, Rachel Simmons), I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of leadership model we are pushing for young women. I fear that too often we present leadership as something necessarily loud and a leader as someone who must seek the limelight. It’s understandable, of course, that the pendulum has swung in this direction; after all, we’re facing up against centuries of the reverse socialization–the ideal woman as demure, quiet, and in the shadows. We’re doing our damnedest to convince the next generation of women that they don’t have to shrink from opportunities just to feel feminine or keep quiet so as not to offend the, assholes, I mean traditional leadership structure.

But, sometimes I fear that in our well-intentioned advocacy for more assertive, more outspoken girls, we’ve sometimes made those whose style is naturally quieter and less showy feel as if they aren’t bonafide leaders. Leadership, at its core, is about each of us being self-aware about our own gifts and figuring out how to put those in service of ourselves and the world, constantly seeking feedback and growing, constantly seeking out collaborators, constantly taking risks and developing our capacity for resilience along the way.

Susan Cain has an upcoming book on our entire culture’s bias for extroversion this fall, but in the meantime she published a bit on her thinking in the New York Times last Sunday. She argues that our very modern tendency to pathologize shyness “does us all a grave disservice, because shyness and introversion — or more precisely, the careful, sensitive temperament from which both often spring — are not just normal. They are valuable. And they may be essential to the survival of our species.”

It’s critical that we uphold a range of leadership styles, including those that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum, as we nurture a new generation of female leaders.

Join the Conversation

  • Rachel

    I’m so glad you wrote this! As an extremely shy person, I have a hard time putting myself out there but I also think I’m a good leader. I’ve always been taught that a good leader is someone who is out there serving others (think: leading by example), but it’s easy to loose sight of that in our society.

  • Eve Magdelen

    Thank you for posting your thoughts on this topic! As a high school teacher, I often see the students with a loud, more obvious leadership style favored over those who lead by thoughtful example. I believe that in many cases leadership by example can be more powerful, depending on the situation. As you pointed out, it is important that we train our quiet leaders to maximize their impact on society. Just imagine what our quiet girls could do if their power were channeled more effectively!

    • davenj

      I saw the exact same thing during my student teaching. Those who could project an authoritative aura simply got more attention and more credit for their ideas, even if shy people proposed better or more thoughtful opinions. We need to encourage the voices of everyone, but we’re trained in school to think that a good response needs to be quick, a lesson we never really get knocked out of us.

  • Anna

    While I agree that extroverted people are still seen as the de-facto leaders, I think is more important to teach “shy” girls confidence, because most of the time they are too afraid of speaking their minds.

    There is nothing wrong with being quiet or an introvert (I’m pretty reserved myself) but there is a difference between shyness and introversion.

  • nazza

    I worked with a fellow Friend my own age to develop a Young Adult program for around a year. She is very introverted and shy. I sense sometimes she believes that people don’t take her seriously because she’s not inclined to put herself out in front. I always tried to make sure that she was given credit for her accomplishments, but experiences in her past often complicated that realization. She sometimes felt that my opinions were valued more by the group.

  • Lucy

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I think it’s definitely important that women and girls feel that they can speak up and loudly voice their opinions in order to take advantage of opportunities and be taken seriously. But it’s also important that they know those opportunities and that respect will always be there for them regardless, that shy or introverted girls don’t feel they have to totally change who they are in order to obtain it.

  • Matt

    Don’t forget about the “shy” boys in this world.

    I think it’s probably also a situation where many of the shy people could afford to assert themselves some more and many of the less-shy people could take it down a notch. People tend to have certain characteristics exaggerated because of the ways other people react to those tendencies, so we would do well to address the consequences.

  • Julia

    I’m shy, and people (who know me) don’t believe me, because I am outspoken, confident and intelligent. But when I first meet people, it’s hard for me to even say “hi” and I am usually at a loss for words and worry that someone may think I’m cold. I try to fake it ’til I make it, it’s a skill I’m building.

    For example, I was at a cousin’s BBQ this weekend, and I was nervous to say “bye” to him because he was sitting with people I didn’t know and I didn’t know how to politely acknowledge them.

  • leleischner

    I completely agree with this. Throughout my life I’ve had situations (classes, friend groups, jobs) where I’ve felt “like a leader” and have felt confident enough to speak out. Most of those situations were ones where I felt comfortable either with the subject matter, people there, etc. However in my senior year of college I had a female professor re-frame for me what leadership actually means and realize that speaking out doesn’t equal being a leader. I realized that just because in most classes I was on the track to being an “introverted learner” didn’t mean I didn’t have valuable ideas to share. I just needed more time to process them than others, which was completely ok. I still find myself trying to find that balance three years out of college. However, as a part time shy girl, I want to help continue to re-frame the idea of shy girls not being seen as leaders. Like you said Court, it’s all about being self-aware about our gifts and feeling confident. Go shy girls, go!