Why We Need to Stop Privileging Extroverted Leadership at Oxford

When interviewing for a job, internship, or even a position on campus, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “what is one of your weaknesses?” This is a hard question, because you don’t want to divulge any information that might make the interviewer think twice about giving you the position. At the same time, you have to give them some kind of answer, or they might believe you think too highly of yourself. It’s a tricky situation, and one I’ve faced many times. One of those times was during my PAL interview. I was asked to identify one of my weaknesses, and after giving it some thought, I responded to the question with three words; “I’m an introvert.” 

During the last semester, I had a lot of time to reflect on why I felt compelled to answer the way I did. Is introversion an inherently negative personality trait? If so, should I be pushing myself to branch out and become more extroverted?  

 The first clue as to why I have a negative perception of introversion came early in the semester. During PAL training, the 30 sophomore leaders were required to take the Myers-Briggs personality test. The test asks you to answer a myriad of questions and assigns each person four of the sixteen personality traits that, when combined, are meant to give an accurate assessment of the test-taker’s strengths. I am an INTJ, meaning my four letters stand for introversion, intuition, thinking, and judgement.  

 The other 29 PALS had their own sets of letters. One activity required us to separate ourselves based on the first letter, with the E extroverts migrating to one side of the room, and the I introverts on the other. I remember looking up and seeing about seven people on the “I” side of the room with me, and the remaining 23 PALs on the “E” side.  

 When a group of people are separated and more than two thirds of the group ends up on one side, if you’re in the other one third, it’s impossible not to feel like you are doing something wrong. In that moment, I couldn’t help but notice that I was in the minority, and I felt like there was something wrong with me. This was the first time I questioned my ability to be a successful PAL. Could I do what was required of me in this position while still staying true to my introverted personality? 

 I’ve had an inside look into the leadership process at Oxford, and the introvert to extrovert student leader ratio is in favor of the extroverts. Naturally, the scale will usually tip towards the extroverted side for positions like these. My concern is that the scale isn’t just tipped, but heavily weighed down on the extrovert side, giving aspiring introvert leaders the perception that extroverts are favored for these positions. While this is most certainly not the case, it’s difficult to see it any other way as a first-year student. I did not discover the truth until I was already months into my experience as a PAL. 

 Student leaders set the tone on campus. But what kind of tone is being set if so many of the campus leaders are extroverts? I don’t think the people that are electing students to these positions are consciously selecting more extroverts than introverts. So why are there a resounding number of extrovert RAs, PALs, iMentors, etc? My best guess: introverts aren’t applying. Personally, I had to be strongly persuaded to apply for any leadership position on campus, especially PAL. I didn’t think I had a chance of getting the position, so why apply? They want extroverts, I told myself. They want people that can get excited on orientation day and scream their hearts out at Ox Olympics. I’m not a singing, dancing, jumping around kind of person, by any means. So why should I waste people’s time applying for something I wouldn’t be selected for?  

 I think this is the thought process of many introverts on campus. Instead of jumping through the Oxford leadership hoops, we decide to snuggle up in our rooms with a good book or a binge-worthy show on Netflix. 

So how do we get more introverts into these highly-praised leadership positions? I think there are two things that need to happen.  

 First, the introverts on campus need to be more willing to take steps out of their comfort zone. This leads me to the second thing that needs to happen: we, as a campus, need to be more conscious of the needs and unique personalities of introverts. Quiet, more reserved students are not going to feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone and into these leadership roles if we as a community don’t make introverts feel welcome. 

 In order to raise the number of introverted applicants for these leadership positions, the Oxford community must encourage us introverts to leave our rooms and make us feel more wanted in these leadership positions. Loud, crowded interest sessions with rooms full of boisterous extroverts are intimidating, and I know I personally left both the PAL and RA interest sessions feeling overwhelmed and drained. I had to muster up what little strength I had left to complete the application. 

 This is the time of the year when many first-year students are beginning to apply to be iMentors, PALs, RAs, and many other positions of campus leadership. To my fellow introverts on campus: I want to strongly encourage you to apply. I know I certainly had my doubts this time last year, but all in all, I’m glad I decided to give it a shot. Don’t be scared away by the intimidating interest sessions, overwhelming group interviews, or the extrovert-only perception that these positions often portray.  

 Like most things, being a PAL had its ups and downs, and I’m sure the other campus leaders would say the same thing about their leadership roles. But my experience as a campus leader taught me one very important thing: being an introvert is not a weakness, but a great strength. 

 While I might not be the loudest or most enthusiastic PAL, I was able to use my introverted strengths to build strong, one-on-one connections with my first-year students. I learned that I could not only teach a Learning to Lead class, but I could teach a class well, and I actually really enjoyed it. And while there were most certainly moments during orientation when I was overwhelmed, I could always turn to a more extroverted campus leader to get an instant boost of energy and inspiration. This introvert-extrovert comradery is one of the many great things I’ve experienced at Oxford, but I hope that we as a community can inspire more of this by inviting more introverts into the circle of leadership at Oxford by creating a more welcoming atmosphere.  

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