How introverts can strengthen their presence, roles in the newsroom

I am a quiet leader, fumbling and stumbling along, barely able to figure out how to do the leadership thing some days.

Writing has always been my solace -- the best way for me not only to lose myself, but to express myself. It’s not a big stretch, then, to understand why I became a journalist, right?

Now that I’ve been in the management racket for a few years, things are harder. Sure, if mimes ever needed a world leader, I’d throw my hat in the ring (or at least make a silent gesture to that effect). But, alas, there are very few mimes here.

And so I’ve been challenged to exercise my vocal cords more and more. I try to speak up at meetings (at least every so often); I network and make small-talk with complete strangers; I give presentations to large audiences.

Still, I think there’s something to be said (or at least murmured) about quiet leadership. If you’re a quiet leader, here’s what I think you can offer.

Be a good listener and observer.

When I was a reporter, my listening and observational skills held me in good stead. I got difficult interviews -- with people who were grieving and with people who had been accused of awful things. I approached them quietly, and I think they could sense that I was listening to them without judgment.

I came to understand sensitive and complicated situations not just through interviews, but through observation. I was often a fly on the wall, watching how people interacted with each other, paying attention to what was said and what wasn’t said. This skill became especially important when I reported stories in communities whose languages and cultures I wasn’t familiar with.

You also need to be a good listener and observer to be an effective leader. How else are you going to coach reporters to produce excellent journalism? How else will you understand what your team’s concerns are? How else will you understand how decisions get made in the newsroom, who the key players are, and who you need to collaborate with to get things done?

Use your credibility as a strong platform to speak from.

Chances are, if you’re a quiet type, you moved into management not because of your sterling speaking skills, but because you were good at what you did before you moved into management.

This is not to say that loquacious types aren’t great at what they do. They are, and boy, do many of them talk about it. It’s just to say that, in a work environment that generally values extroverts over introverts (want to argue about that?), quiet types usually get promoted in spite of not talking very much.

So don’t underestimate the credibility that you have in the newsroom. You most likely have a track record of getting things done – no muss, no fuss. Don’t forsake the things you fought so hard for. Use your credibility as a strong platform: Speak up for the things you believe in, whether it’s more powerful storytelling or beat reporting or investigative reporting.

People will most likely stop to listen to what you have to say.

Be calm and resilient, encouraging others through hard times.

Not long ago, I found myself in a conversation with a young editor whom I admire. I admire him not only as a journalist, but as a human being who survived a horrible accident and, throughout his recovery, has lived with and endured more pain than most of us can ever imagine.

He was feeling down for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t planned on going deep in the conversation, but something suddenly told me to speak the truth. I told him: “You are one of the strongest warriors in this newsroom. People need you to be a positive force right now.”

At that moment, I realized that even though I’ll never be the loudest person in the room, I can, even if it’s behind the scenes, encourage people to do good work – and all the better if they are the extroverts who can, in turn, rally the newsroom.

Find ways to show enthusiasm

If you’re a quiet leader, you’re probably not the biggest cheerleader in the room. In fact, people might wonder, sometimes, whether you are interested or disinterested, engaged or disengaged. They can’t tell what’s going on in that head of yours.
I don’t think the answer is to fake being a cheerleader, because that will just come off as being phony.

The trick is to show your enthusiasm in ways that are authentic to who you are. Treat a colleague to lunch if you’re interested in the work he or she is doing. Write a personal note of praise if you were wowed by a reporter’s story. Share stories from other publications that your teammates might enjoy and learn from. As my friend Butch Ward of Poynter says, take the time to ask, “How are you doing?” and truly listen to the response.

Serve as a mentor.

The longer I’m in this business, the more I realize how important it is to mentor younger journalists. Perhaps it’s the most important thing we can do as leaders, whether we’re extroverts or introverts. These young people are brave souls for getting into the news business at this time. Some jaded folks would call them naïve and foolhardy, but I don’t see that.

I just tell them that they will have to truly love journalism -- they will learn soon enough whether they do or not -- to get through the next several years. And they will have to learn to live with uncertainty.

I listen closely to what these journalists tell me -- stories about their dreams and doubts. I find that it helps in these situations to not be so talkative, because really they aren’t looking to be regaled by war stories. They want you to be a sounding board; they are looking for reassurance; they are looking for someone they can trust.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Pollyanna. I’ve lost staffs and sections. I’ve seen many friends walk out the door. I’ve seen as much loss as the next person. But I can tell these young people that what we do as journalists still makes a difference, and that we need them in the game, because they are the ones who are going to figure out what journalism is going to look like next.

So, to my fellow quiet types, I offer encouragement: Speak up and assert yourself. But also know that you have many powers that you can use for good in the newsroom.

  • Tom Huang

    Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program.


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