When Susan Cain wrote her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, it was as if half the world let out a collective sigh of relief. It was okay– it was beyond okay – to be an introverted, to think before speaking, and to have a rich inner life. In a world where seemingly normal people are masterful storytellers on TedX or have undiscovered talents as a Broadway singer on America’s Got Talent, those who might be more limited in the charm department but loaded in the competency one finally had a voice.
Students often came up to me with frenzied concern that not being the president of the National Honor Society would hurt their chances of being admitted into a dream college, or that being an introvert would ruin their opportunities to impress an alumni interviewer. The worry often began way before students even reached this point. Many parents came to me worried that their five-year old seems too shy (“is she too meek? Will she ever stand out in a crowd?”). They worried that their little one who prefers to play by herself or only has one best friend instead of 24 would never become captain of the swim team. If she’s not Head Flautist, does being a committed, talented player even matter? Better now to push her to learn to sparkle rather than celebrate her persistence and hard work.
But as many of us know, forcing someone to be something they are not only takes away from their self-worth and confidence, but also undermines their natural strengths and abilities. We all know someone (perhaps ourselves) who is powerful in the way he always does what he says he will. He might not be the best presenter in the room, but he is undeniably honest. We also all know someone (maybe ourselves? Surely, not!) who is powerful in the way she oozes charisma and can inspire a crowd to walk off a cliff if she wanted to. She is incredible on the stage, the one we want on the cover of our organization’s magazine, but if we really pay attention, how she speaks sounds better than what she actually says. Her charming style doesn’t quite match up to reality or how she manages her team. She’s the emperor wearing new clothes.
We know who we trust and prefer as a leader, a friend, or a colleague. Yet we somehow convince ourselves or our children that universities look for those who “stand out,” a euphemism for the “charismatic, visionary leader.” In truth, what universities generally mean is one that is noticeable along many dimensions.
A student might be noticeable because of their charisma and vision. But those pieces must have evidence to back it up. What do their peers and teachers say about their charismatic vision? Do they do what they say? Do they lead with competence and compassion? Are they consistent with their words and action?
A student might be noticeable because of their understated ability to move teams forward. Perhaps their peers and teachers notice the manner in which they comport themselves in and out of the classroom. Perhaps their stated passion for the arts is not pieced together by 1-week job shadow at a prestigious theatre company, but a limited but consistent commitment to community theatre for ten years.
Honoring our natural selves helps us to build the core of who we are. When we can let that shine, we are able to act with greater awareness, deeper commitment, and thoughtful consistency. We can then lead and inspire others through our actions and not just empty words. So, where to start?
- Walk the walk
Recognize that words have meaning. Meaning holds power. When we speak, others do listen. Yet if we speak one thing and do or mean other, other’s belief in us diminish quickly or over time, which reduces our ability to impact and influence. It also creates a sense of distrust, and in any community, not a quality other people seek for in a friend, classmate, or roommate.
- Honor your strengths
Take note of where you draw your energy from. Perhaps you get more energized from talking to others; perhaps from a quieter afternoon. Understanding where your natural strengths and then leveraging them can enable you to build on those leadership and influencing skills that help you to “stand out.”
- Be discerning
Pay attention to what others do and to how their words match with their actions. Be present rather than simply receiving words that might sound great initially, but might be empty or draw you in a direction that is not best for you. Consider how consistent behaviors enhance natural charisma or how inconsistent behaviors might be covered up by a shiny exterior. Apply that to build your own natural charm.
In a selective admissions process, those who stand out do so because of their honesty, integrity, commitment, and character. All of those things naturally package themselves in their own charming charisma.
It’s easy to follow the glitter. But all that glitters is not gold.