Introverts as social change leaders: Interview with Susan Cain

One of the most popular posts on Idealist Careers is job seeking as an introvert, with thousands of people reading and sharing this article. We wanted to dig a bit deeper into introversion as it applies to social change leadership, so we reached out to Susan Cain, author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

In the interview below she talks to us about the different engagement styles of introverts and extroverts, how introverts can build relationships, and why some of our most famous social change leaders were introverts.

When it comes to getting involved in one’s community and connecting with others, how might introverts and extroverts differ in their engagement?

Susan Cain Author Photo Credit Aaron Fedor-1
Susan Cain

It’s really just a question of different styles; introverts are seen as anti-social, but they have a different way of being social. They prefer to connect one-on-one and around an issue they find important.

So while an extrovert might attend an event and end up chatting with everyone, an introvert might attend an event, and have a few one-on-one conversations. For example, when I go to an event, I never see it as my role to leave with a fistful of business cards, but instead to meet just one or two people. The relationships build from there.

Introverts can also be great at public speaking. Many of our great public speakers are introverts, because they prepare so deeply for their talks. So a great way for many introverts to get involved is to give a speech and have small conversations with people afterwards, when you have something meaningful to talk about. Introverts have to be strategic by connecting with people around substantive topics.

Zooming out a little bit, what do introverts bring as leaders to the social sector?

Well it’s funny you mention that, because in my book I profiled well-known activists who were introverts: Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt. All were described as quiet people, yet everyone wanted to work with them.

This is because introverts rarely rise to leadership for the sake of being a leader. They get into those positions when they care about a cause and people start to trust them, not because they have the loudest voices or larger than life personalities. People respond to people who have a true, authentic commitment to something, and a deep expertise.

Ashoka is a modern example of this. It was founded by and is currently led by introverts.

What are some of the challenges you think introverts might face as they try to build their networks and get involved in their communities? How can they overcome them?

Usually it just means having to put yourself out of your comfort zone. For example, some introverts aren’t comfortable with public speaking, so they have to keep practicing until they become comfortable. There’s a perception that you have to be a showman when you speak. But you can speak more powerfully when you’re in tune with who you are.

Additionally, introverts are less inclined to be out and about meeting new people. So one way to get more involved without being overwhelmed is to give yourself a quota system in terms of time or people. Tell yourself that every month you’ll go to a certain number of community gatherings or events, say one per week. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll attend this set number of event. The rest of the time, you’ll work on what feels right for you — which might include writing, sharing updates on social media, etc. You have to identify your strengths, your center or core, then focus on those, and only push yourself out of your comfort zone when you need to.

Learn more about Susan, the book, and her upcoming public speaking course for introverts at The Power of Introverts.


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    • Likumbi Kapihya
    • October 7, 2013

    Thanks for the article! It really touched home for me and the difficulties I have at cattle-call networking events. One thing to clarify is on ‘quietness’ and being withdrawn used as indicators of introverts. I thought introverts are people who draw their energy from being alone, they type who need to recharge in peace and quiet. While extroverts draw their energy by being in group setting and actually feel like they are loosing energy when they are alone. In that way a person can be talkative and energetic but still be an introvert. While it is true that introverts will more likely be silent in large groups, especially if their energy levels are depleted, extroverts too can suffer from bouts of reticence.

    • Steven Nicksic
    • October 7, 2013

    I would say that I feel like the type of introvert that Susan is describing. Just recently I attended a fundraiser for our organization and while there were many people to mingle and talk with, I found myself mostly hanging out with the other members of our board that I have known for a while. I think I only spoke with two people that I have not met before. I know that I need to be out there developing relationships but it just doesn’t come naturally for me. Sometimes it worries me that this behavior will not be perceived well by others and may actually hurt our organization when it comes to future support. Still, I hope that those I do engage with in conversation are able to tell that my passion for our mission is very real. Thank you for this article as the subject of introverts and leadership is one that I think of often.

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  5. It would be interesting to learn how many of these powerful individuals are being passed over during their job search. Would love to see a hiring process or a more insightful employer that digs deeper to uncover the true value of these gems.

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