Guest Column

The Power of a Leader


Can one be an introvert and still be an effective leader?

As a much younger school superintendent several years ago, I completed one of those personality inventories--the Myers/Briggs, the Briggs/Stratton, the Bess/Myerson or something like that–while attending a training session with my first board of education.

The inventory involved responding to questions with the answer that best represents how you would react to various situations. Some people in my group were surprised to see me categorized as an introvert. I wasn't. Although I'm not sure introverted is a good way to describe me, I can be rather shy at times. Rather than apologize for this trait, I think those of us in leadership positions can find some valuable tools in those personal characteristics most associated with the bashful.

Power to Empower
To many people, sitting back while others talk isn't becoming behavior for a leader. To them a leader should be in the middle of the conversation--asking questions and giving directions. Certainly, there may be a time for that, but only after spending a lot of time listening. Truthfully, I find I'm a much better listener when my mouth is shut.

In a crowded room an introvert might be more comfortable with his or her back against the wall watching the evening unfold before him or her. The extrovert, a personality style that most people associate with a natural leader, would be plowing through the crowd, shaking hands and slapping backs. Once again, a common misconception exists that the leader should be the center of attention.

Which of the two personalities is in a better position to figure out the relationships between the individuals and groups in that room? Or, to borrow a phrase from Aretha Franklin, by watching the crowd can you figure out "Who's Zooming Who?"

Those who find themselves in a position of leadership can be very powerful. But the power does not come from the title of president or chairman or superintendent. We've all known individuals who held titles of great importance and who liked to tell everyone how important they were, but who couldn't lead a group of ants to a watermelon. As Margaret Thatcher once said, "Being in power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."

True leaders recognize that by listening and observing they can identify the strengths and the passions of the individuals of the organization. With that information, leaders can empower employees. That's where real leadership is evident--the empowerment of the good people in the organization to do their job.

Illuminating Behavior
I like to use the theater to demonstrate this idea.

When you consider all of the individuals required to put on a stage production--the actors, technicians, stage manager, director, the musicians and others--who in the cast is the most powerful?

Would you guess the lead actor? I don't think so. He's only saying the words someone else has given him. He may have some liberty to interpret the script, but for the most part he walks where he is told to walk and stands where he is told to stand.

How about the director? Certainly there is some power in that role. The rest of the ensemble expects the director to tell them what to do. But telling everyone what to do is not empowering them.

I believe the most powerful individual in the cast is the lighting director. She decides who gets seen on the stage. By shining the light on the actor, she empowers him to use the skills, experience and direction to entertain the audience. If they're not lit, they're not a hit.

The same is true in school systems. The leader does not always need to be in the front. Sometimes leaders control the spotlight from the back of the room and exercise their power by illuminating the stars.

Dan Curry is superintendent of Wood County Schools, 1210 13th St., Parkersburg, WV 26101-4194. E-mail: