Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Why Extraversion May Not Matter

If extraverts make better leaders, why isn't Robin Williams president?

Recent research evidence suggests that while extraversion is predictive of many positive social outcomes, it may not be extraversion itself that matters. Instead, it may be possession of social skills or competencies that are better predictors of social outcomes than personality constructs such as extraversion. Let me explain.

Extraversion is a core personality trait that is associated with high levels of energy, expressing emotions, and seeking the company of others. Extraverts seek out social situations. Intraverts are more low-key, deliberate, and often seek solitude. There is a great deal of research that shows that extraverts are evaluated more positively in initial encounters (usually in social situations, and likely because they get "noticed"). Extraverts are also evaluated more positively in job interviews and, most relevant to my area of study—leadership, extraverts are more likely to attain leadership positions and to be seen as more effective leaders. So, there is a seeming advantage to being an extravert.

However, social skills come into play. Social skills refers broadly to certain abilities to be effective in social situations. We break down social skills into two types of competencies: emotional competencies and social competencies. Emotional competencies are components of the broader construct of emotional intelligence. Social competencies are critical to emotional intelligence.

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In a very recent study, we found, consistent with previous research, that extraversion was related to both the attainment of leadership positions and a self-rated measure of leader effectiveness. But rather than using leaders, we used a longitudinal sample of everyday adults. However, we also measured key social skills. In our analysis we found that social skills also predicted leadership. However, when we found that when social skills were put into the equation, extraversion no longer predicted leadership. In short, only extraverts who possessed high levels of social skills were more likely to be leaders (and effective leaders).

This makes sense. Think of extraversion as a potential for social effectiveness—a sort of social "energy." But if the person lacks the social skills to direct that energy, then the person will not be socially effective. Conversely, socially skilled intraverts should do well in social interaction, but in a more low-key manner.

Think about some of the extraverted folks in entertainment—the Robin Williams, or Jim Carrey types. They seem to be classic (and perhaps over the top) extraverts - seeking out social situations and wanting to be the center of attention. But, without the social skills to rein in and control their personalities, it is unlikely that these individuals would be effective leaders.

So, personality matters, but skills and competencies may matter more when it comes to complex social behaviors such as leadership.

References
Guerin, D.W., Oliver, P.H., Gottfried, A.W., Gottfried, A.E., Reichard, R.J., &
Riggio, R.E. (2011). Childhood and adolescent antecedents of social skills and leadership potential in adulthood: Temperamental approach/withdrawal and extraversion. The Leadership Quarterly, 22(3), 482-494.

Riggio, R.E., & Reichard, R. J. (2008). The emotional and social intelligences of effective leadership: An emotional and social skill approach Journal of Managerial
Psychology, 23(2), 169-185.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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