Genealogy, Introverts, and Leadership

Over the past year I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about what it means to be a good and effective leader, what it means to build and sustain a successful genealogy community, and if I have what it takes do both of these things. I am introvert, more specifically Myers-Briggs personality type INFJ. I have been a member of several genealogy organizations and a leader at two of those. I have lost count of how many times I have been told, “You just need to come out of your shell,” “You need to loosen up,” “Quit being so shy,” “Get out of your head,” and the list goes on. I’ve encountered criticisms such as these in all walks of life as have many, many, many other introverts out there. Despite my best efforts I have a tendency to internalize criticisms such as these, particularly when they are repeated, and my self-esteem can suffer from time to time as a result.

Earlier this year, I thought I’d bolster my self-esteem by empowering myself by gaining more knowledge about running an effective genealogy society.  Over the span of about four or five months I read every book and blog post that I could get my hands on about genealogy societies, leadership, running a nonprofit, and marketing. The fact that I felt the need to do so speaks to how low my self-esteem was as you see I have a Bachelors of Science in Business Administration Management that covered these fundamentals and I graduated Magna Cum Laude. I gained additional knowledge, but, it didn’t help my self-esteem much. The theme of most of these books can be summed up with the words- be a good little extrovert. Sigh. This left me wondering, can an introvert truly be a leader?

I’ve always known I was an introvert, but, I think this is the year where I have finally and fully accepted as that being okay. I will admit this acceptance was fueled by learning what my Myers-Briggs personality type was, reading about what it means, and learning others who are also an INFJ (the rarest personality type). It is nice to know there are others like me and despite what the world may try to tell us that there is nothing wrong with us. After a great deal of thinking, I’ve concluded that introverts can make some of the best leaders.

An introvert who wants to be a leader sounds a bit like an oxymoron. However, being an introvert does not mean that you do not care about the world around you,nor those in it. In my case, as an INFJ, at times I care too much to the point that I become extremely drained. My desire to see a cause I believe in succeed and impact others compels me to step into a leadership role and drives me to fiercely fight for that cause no matter what. I recognize there are things about an introvert, particularly INFJs who have rather complex personalities, that can be misunderstood. I will concede that I need to clarify somethings more when I am in a leadership role even though opening up like that to people I do not know well or in a new situation goes against my personality. But, it does bother me that I have to make these clarifications so that others will not make assumptions. Instead of hearing how I need to do things a, b, and c or change x,y, and z it’d be nice to hear for once, “You’re introvert aren’t you? That’s nifty.”

Recharging on the shore of Lake Superior. Sunrise, just me, and my camera.
Recharging on the shore of Lake Superior. Sunrise, just me, and my camera.

There are certain misperceptions about being an introvert that drive me especially nutty. First, there are ones that have to do with the dual nature of my personality type. The INFJ is an “extroverted introvert.” If I am relaxed, in a good mood, or had a couple bottles glasses of wine I can be very talkative and open. The flip side, I can be reserved, quiet, and just observe. Those who see both sides may take the latter as my being aloof or simply in a bad mood.  To make matters worse, they can see this as an invite to cheer me up and encourage me to “just relax.” And no, this does not mean that I am bipolar!!! My batteries need charged frequently and my quiet, alone time is when they recharge. If my batteries are not charged, I will act differently than I do when they are full.

I will admit to being a little shy and having a very much alive and well fear of public speaking. To be clear, these are not the only reasons for why I am quiet in group settings. I observe and process information before I speak. I am not one who likes to answer a question on the spot, I like to mull it over. If you ask me a question and expect an answer right away, my thoughts may come out jumbled. My best ideas take time to grow. As I already mentioned, I may be quiet because my battery charge is low. Or, I may be quiet because some may take it personally if I say “Being around you is draining all my energy, can you please leave or can I leave?” Not to mention that leaving in the middle of leadership meeting is frowned upon. As harsh as it sounds, it is nothing personal if I feel that way around you. This can all be misinterpreted as my being unfriendly, rude, incapable, unintelligent, or withdrawn to a fault.  There is a meme floating around with a very true and fitting sentiment that says, “Don’t underestimate me. I know more than I say, think more than I speak, and notice more than you realize.”

I am an extremely creative person who has a mind that never stops and always dreams big. I start with big ideas and then work out the details. I may blurt out a big idea while others look at me like I’m nuts. I will admit some of my ideas and dreams do sound completely insane. It is usually only when the doubts of others have seeped into my mind that my way of thinking shifts from “How can do I go about this?” to “Is this even possible?” This distinction in thinking is part of what makes me who I am. Unfortunately, all too often others see me as someone who is unrealistic and does not fully comprehend what goes into the task or project at hand. I do fully understand the amount of problems to be solved, the amount of work to be done, but, I see them as a challenge not a road block. I am not one to do something to prove jerkwads like that wrong, why waste my energy on them even more is my thought, but, let’s just say there are many happy coincidences that have arisen by my doing my own thing.

It’s always surprised me that the leadership within the genealogy community is not more “introvert friendly” because the actual research aspect is very introvert friendly. I have the desire to connect with others  who share in my passion yet the thought of attending meetings or functions can be foreboding. All those people! All that energy being drained! Now couple that with the fact that I am very young by genealogist demographic standards which inevitably ends up meaning that I will draw extra attention. RUN is a thought that usually enters my mind the second I walk in, if I even make it that far.  Not much changes if it’s a Google+ meeting situation, I still think “Oh Lord, do I have to do this?” Stop for a minute to consider how much I believe what a great thing genealogy is if I am willing to put myself in what is already a draining situation and further compound that by saying I want to help. Do you really want to turn that kind of belief, desire, and commitment away? I may do things differently than an extroverted leader, I may very eagerly delegate certain tasks to someone who is an extrovert, but, why does a different way of leading mean it is a bad way of leading?

I realize this blog post is very much about me. I hope it is not taken as my patting myself on the back and taken for what it is meant to be- encouragement for those like me who want to lead and a post that helps others not like us understand us. I do not mean to point a finger at extroverts, genealogy societies, or those in leadership positions. Rather, I ask that you take a moment to think before you assume, before you criticize, ask yourself, “Am I dealing with an introvert?” Please, take the time to get to know someone before inadvertently running them off. You may loose a valuable asset if you do.