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Why It’s Time for Quiet, Introverted Leaders

The workplace needs more introverted leaders.

Our culture--particularly in business and politics--seems to be in love with the charismatic leader:The guns blazing, no-holds barred, center-of-attention leader, who is a super confident if not arrogant, aggressively decisive leader of a band of star-struck followers. This stereotype of a leader appears to be an integral part of our individualistic society, despite the fact that modern economies and societies now are far from individualistic.

Movies, TV and the news media have, significantly influenced our popular image of leaders such as Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Jim Carey, Larry Ellison, Jack Welch or Donald Trump, for the past three decades. This stereotypic view of charismatic, extraverted individuals, often egocentric and aggressive has been associated with what we want and expect in our leaders.

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The stereotype endures, and extraverted leaders (and potential leaders) are valued highly, regardless of the reality of their performance and organizational needs. The status and reputation of quiet, introverted leadership is undervalued and underappreciated. Despite decades of research on leadership pointing to other less demonstrative skills that are needed, extraverted leaders are still favored in recruiting and promoting decisions. Yet recent research reveals that today’s workplace may be more suited to introverted, quiet leaders.

You can argue the case that Wall Street financial scandals and even foreign policy and political problems may be directly linked the dominance of extraverted leaders. In my work with dozens of senior executives and business owners over the last two decades, it was my experience that most leaders who got into trouble were extreme extraverts and rarely did I encounter a highly respected introverted leader who shared the same fate.

Ronald Riggio, writing in Psychology Today, contends “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.” Riggio’s recent research concluded that when social skills such as emotional intelligence were measured, “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)."

David Rock, in his book, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, cites recent neuroscience research that argues effective leaders should focus on mentoring, empowering and developing people, behaviors that are more consistent with introverts than extraverts.

According to recent research by Francesca Gino of Harvard University and David Hoffman of the University of North Carolina, published in the Academy of Management Journal, there is a significant correlation between the kinds of leadership style needed and the personalities and behavior of employees.

The authors argue that extraverted leadership commands the center of attention: being assertive, bold, talkative and dominant, providing and clear authority, structure and direction. However, pairing extraverted leaders with employees who take initiative, are more independent and speak out can lead to conflict, while pairing the same type of employees with an introverted leader can be more successful. The researchers found in their study that when employees are more proactive, introverted managers lead them to higher profits, whereas where employees are not proactive or are passive, extraverted managers are more successful. They concluded that introverted and extraverted leadership styles can be equally effective, but with different kinds of employees.

The researchers reported that whereas just 50 percent of the general population is extroverted, 96% of managers and executives display extraverted personalities. And the higher you go in a corporate hierarchy, the more likely you are to find highly extraverted individuals.

Gino says that “introverts are more receptive to people since they tend to listen more than extraverts,” adding, “the fact that they are more receptive is due primarily to their ability and willingness to listen carefully to what others have to say without being threatened.”

Frances B. Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength, describes introverts as not being the same as shy people, who are often  fearful, anxious and self-centered. Rather, introversion is a hardwired orientation, Kahnweiler says, in which introverts process information internally, keep matters private, avoid showing emotion, and exhibit calm natures. She describes 5 key characteristics of introverted leaders:

  1. They think first and talk later. They consider what others have to say, then reflect and then respond;
  2. They focus on depth not superficiality. They like to dig deeply into issues and ideas before considering new ones; like meaningful rather than superficial conversations;
  3. They exude calm. In times of crisis in particular, they project reassuring, unflappable confidence;
  4. They prefer writing to talking. They are more comfortable with the written word, which helps them formulate the spoken word;
  5. They embrace solitude. They are energized by spending time alone, and often suffer from people exhaustion. They need a retreat, from which they emerge with renewed energy and clarity.

Nancy Ancowitz, author of Self-Promotion for Introverts, writing in Psychology Today, cites the examples of quiet introverted leaders such as Warren Buffett, Ken Frazier, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Steven Spielberg, Carol Bartz and Andrew Jung as widely respected effective leaders.

Patty Azzarello, author of Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out As a Leader And Liking Your Life, outlines the mistakes recruiters make in hiring new leaders. She cautions against choosing a person who dominates a conversation, and is a great talker with apparent ‘superstar” qualities. In other words, the characteristics of an extravert.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, described how “our culture is biased against quiet and reserved people, but introverts are responsible for some of humanity’s greatest achievements—from Steve Wozniak’s invention of the Apple computer to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. And these introverts did what they did not in spite of their achievements—but because of them. Neither the theory of relativity nor the epic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, was “dashed off by a party animal.”

Introverts make up one-third to one-half of the population. Yet, Cain argues, our most important institutions including our schools and our workplaces are designed for extroverts. Cain emphasizes the importance of periods of solitude, silence and reflection as being just as important as busy social interaction particularly when it comes to generating creative ideas. This emphasis is consistent with the recent movement toward developing mindfulness in people, particularly leaders of organizations.

One thing is for sure. The workplace is populated by increasing numbers of intelligent, knowledge workers, frequently in self-managing teams, particularly those of Generation Y. Many of these workers don’t see themselves as passive employees waiting for orders nor do they want to be controlled by an egocentric extraverted leader. So the time may be right for us to embrace an introverted leadership style. It’s certainly time to have a better balance in leadership style.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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