Are You Too Shy to Lead?

Leaders are made, not born.

Posted Sep 29, 2011

I know someone who has terrific ideas, a natural innovator and smart strategic thinker. But she never speaks up in meetings. She's too shy, she tells me. And, she adds, she's been like that all her life: "That's just who I am."

So she'll quietly share her thoughts with the person next to her, who quite often will voice them to everyone - and get the credit for her sound insights. It drives my friend crazy.

On her own, she's a dynamite performer. And that has caught the eye of management. She's been told she may get a promotion to team leader. She like's the idea, except for one thing: she's petrified at the thought of having to speak in front of everyone.

Is her potential career as a leader doomed? Not at all. Leaders are made, not born. Let's take it from the start, childhood. Parents will type their kids from day one as "bold" or "timid". And, they assume, once shy, always shy.

But now careful research has debunked those assumptions. A study at the University of Wisconsin that followed 70 toddlers for several years tested them on how bold or shy they were at three ages: three, seven and nine. The result: kids who were shy at three were not especially likely to be shy at nine. Kids went back and forth, from bolder to more timid, or the reverse, at what amounted to random.

What made the difference was not some set of genes that permanently fixed them as outgoing or shy, but rather what they experienced in their lives. If parents, say, regularly exposed a shy kid to strange playmates at a playground and was emotionally supportive in the face of their uncertainty, those kids learned a crucial lesson: I may feel a little afraid at first, but if I go ahead and engage despite the fear, I'll have a great time.

And the same holds for grownups. Someone a bit timid in groups at work can overcome her shyness with sustained effort. The steps to developing key leadership abilities like self-confidence are well-known.

First, ask yourself: do I care? You need to be motivated, because it takes effort and time - and may be a bit uncomfortable at first.

Second, ask, do I really need to improve? Get opinions of people you respect and trust about what they see as your strengths and limits when it comes to leadership potential.

Third, answer the question: what should I practice? It helps to have a learning plan, a contract with yourself. In this case it might be: Whenever the opportunity arises, I will speak up and say what I'm thinking, rather than just sitting there being quiet.

Fourth, find a friend to support you, someone you can talk over times you don't get it right. Think through what kept you quiet, and what you might do next time to have the confidence to speak up.

Finally, seize every opportunity to practice - not just work, but anywhere in your life it may happen. If you follow this regime, you'll be reprogramming your brain in a way that will make it easier and easier to overcome that still, small voice that says, "Be quiet."

My quiet friend has been trying it. And, she tells me, she's starting to like taking the lead.