Introverts can be leaders too

FORTUNE — The Myers-Briggs test doesn’t lie. Doug Conant is sure he’s a born introvert, especially after taking the personality test half a dozen times. Running an organization of nearly 20,000 employees wasn’t easy for someone who would rather stay behind the scenes. Conant says it takes honesty, discipline, and necessary alone time for him to lead. Now, when he’s not busy fending off takeover bids on Avon’s (AVP) board of directors, Conant has perhaps the least-introverted job out there: He often stands in front of a roomful of people and tells them how they, too, can be leaders. His advice:

Don’t change who you are

All of us introverts aspire to be more outgoing, but it’s not in our nature. When I was nearly 50, I discovered that the best thing to do was to tell everyone I worked with that I’m just shy. People are not mind readers — you need to let them know. Eventually, I developed this little talk that became an orientation to who I was and what I was trying to do. I’d tell it to new employees right off the bat. I do this so that everyone around me knows who I am, where I come from, and what I expect everyone to do in order to succeed. I have been doing it now for 20 years, and it really does build a strong sense of trust and get beyond all of the little superficial dances people do.

Say what’s on your mind

At one point in my career, the CEO of Nabisco wanted me to be president of the sales organization. “You have got to be kidding me,” I said: “(a) I’m an introvert, and (b) I can’t play golf.” Still, I was put in that position. Emotionally, it was by far the most challenging job I’ve ever had, but I had to get it done. I’ve met so many leaders who realize that telling your colleagues something that is on your mind is so much easier than keeping it in. Sometimes the things we make up in our heads are not nearly as big a deal as we think.

Know who you work with

Most people think of leaders as being these outgoing, very visible, and charismatic people, which I find to be a very narrow perception. The key challenge for managers today is to get beyond the surface of your colleagues. You might just find that you have introverts embedded within your organization who are natural-born leaders. Extroverts may get places faster, but for introverts it’s all about working at the pace you need and, at the end of the day, performing at your best.

Find alone time

For the better part of my career at Campbell Soup (CPB), I had a driver for my two-hour commute each way to work. I could sit and think. When I worked at Nabisco, I had a 10-minute commute, so I got up very early in the morning and had a cup of coffee at home in my garden. Introverts get more energy by having quiet time, compared with extroverts, who find energy by being around people.

This story is from the May 21, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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