I was around 11 years old. My armpit sweat soaked through my shirt as if there were tiny sweat monsters continuously dumping buckets of perspiration from my underarms. My anxiety went as deep as the sea and my pulse was racing so fast all I wanted to do was jump off the stage and race out of there like a speeding bullet . It was the first time I had to stand in front of an audience of about 100 people and participate in my first oratory speech competition. I remember this evening clearly. I memorized everything I had to say. It was going to be alright … until one of the girls did a backflip before her speech. Now you tell me, how was I supposed to top that?? I heard my name over the loud speakers, and I stepped out onto the stage. I recall looking out and seeing the bright blinding stage lights and there I stood there frozen like a popsicle. But I did what I came to do, albeit I probably sounded like a robot, I completed the task and swore that this was the last time I’d ever do something like that again. I just wanted to be the sweet, quiet girl. What was wrong with that? It’s not like I was going to be a leader. I never wanted to be a leader. Ever.
For the majority of my life, I always believed in order to be a good leader, you had to talk a lot, be outspoken, know what to say all the time, and I did not have ANY of those qualities. I was shy. It pained me to the CORE to even talk in front of people. Whenever I had to present something and all eyes fell on me, my face would feel hot like fire, turn red like a tomato, and I was paralyzed with fear when I had to speak in front of a group; even if it was just my classmates. To try to overcome this fear, in grade school, I participated in speech competitions. It still just made me want to crawl into a ball. While I didn’t win any awards, I tried and strived to be more outgoing, but it felt so uncomfortable, so not me. Perhaps it was a cultural thing. Let me explain.
Be a Quiet, Good Girl
Raised as an Asian female, we weren’t encouraged to be leaders in our family. We were encouraged to be obedient and make sure we knew how to clean the house and cook a decent meal. My parents valued everyone in our family getting an education and always striving to do our best, but being a leader wasn’t really one of those things. To raise your voice or express your opinion was like talking back and close to being sacrilegious. I make it sound as if I was raised by dictators — that is far from the truth. My parents were loving and wanted everything for us, however, they were also very traditional. That was the way they grew up and they raised me and my 5 other siblings the only way they knew how. While they encouraged us to be anything we wanted to be, at the same time, it wasn’t respectful or appropriate to express our opinions or argue about any hot topics with anyone who was older than us. You begin to see as an adult so much of what we believe about ourselves and our values were conditioned into us as children, and we grow up with those beliefs of who we think we should be or how we think we should act based on what we are told as children. At any point, you have the power to change this story you believe of yourself. Then some point in my 20’s, something finally shifted for me. I started seeing Asian women on TV, like Lucy Liu, Connie Chung and I thought, why not me? Why couldn’t I be more than just the “quiet good girl”? It was like an epiphany for me and I finally saw the possibilities. My belief in myself had changed. I knew that even though I was quiet and undetected, there was a powerful force inside me waiting for my chance to show the world what I really can be.
The Evolution Into a Butterfly
I like to describe the my evolution into a leader like the creation of a butterfly. I was a caterpillar in my own little cocoon going through the long, remarkable process of metamorphosis. This transformation or process of becoming the leader I am today was not overnight. I disappointed a lot of people. I failed countless times. But I made sure that my cocoon was well taken care of and I surrounded myself with people who inspired me and supported me by peeling me off the ground when I had fallen flat on my face. Then one day, I was ready. I wiggled my way out of the chrysalis and spread my wings to fly. For a Monarch Butterfly, it takes about 3-4 hours to master flying. Obviously, it took me more like 3-4 years to learn how to fly with my majestic wings, but I persevered, kept on trying and I figured it out.
My 3 Top Strengths
During this long process of becoming the introverted leader, I realized that what I perceived as my weaknesses were actually strengths, and they weren’t what I believed or perceived were required to be a leader. Here are my top 3:
- All that time NOT talking made me a very good listener. Many times, people just want to be heard. When you stay quiet, you can hear what their needs are and can confidently lead people down the right path. Listening doesn’t just mean allowing people to speak without being interrupted but listening means processing what the other person is sharing with you and being better prepared on how to respond with a solution or guidance. We spend the rest of the time just, absorbing as much information as possible throughout the conversation. Sometimes, there’s no need to say anything. Sometimes, just listening is the only thing that the other person needs and knowing that they will not be judged or given advice they never asked for.
- Introverts like to build relationships with people. I like to go deep and understand who you are, not just what you do for your career or talk about the weather. I want to know about your family, how you met your significant other, your hobbies and what you would do if you never had to work another day in your life. It’s just easy for me to be interested in you because we all have colorful, incredible and valuable stories to share about ourselves and our life. I’m really not into small talk or chit chat. I want to get to know you as a person and will make it a point to set the time to do that. Oftentimes, my husband will tease me and warn people to be careful because in 5 minutes I will have gotten them to share their deepest, darkest secrets. We joke about it, but when you take an interest in people, they trust you and sometimes will confide in you. You are more than just someone who has a title. You become their friend. Knowing your people is vital to being a great leader. You are building a community and friendships and it becomes more than just a place someone comes to work. People want to feel a sense of belonging and you can create that through relationships you build as a leader.
- Introverts are also OK being by themselves. We actually recharge when we are alone. Crowds and people drain our energy and superpowers, kind of like kryptonite is to Superman. These regular moments of solitude help us to get our creative juices flowing again, help to clear our mind and function better as leaders. There isn’t anything better to me than to sit outside on my patio rocking chair, with a glass of wine and reading a book to decompress and allow myself to relax.
Every day I am continuing to figure this leadership thing out. But what I have learned was that you can be a quiet, introverted leader and still make a big impact. You don’t have to be outspoken, loud, outgoing or even articulate. Being quiet is just as powerful.