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The Power of Introverts: Lessons from Emma McKeon

Introverts have unique strengths. Here are the reasons why.

Key points

  • Despite of a preference for extraversion in many societies, the personality trait of introversion has unique benefits.
  • Introverts excel at tasks that require dedicated attention and introspection, such as academic performance or creative tasks.
  • Introverted leaders tend to be more effective in managing proactive employees, and also demonstrate more servant leadership style.

Now that the Olympic buzz has settled, there are a few valuable lessons to be learned from the world’s top athletes that could help the rest of us.

Over the first week of the Olympics, Australian swimmer Emma McKeon brought a great deal of joy to the loungerooms of countless Australian households. What struck many people most is not just her achievements in one of the Olympics’ most competitive fields—sprint swimming—but her ability to survive a gruelling schedule and perform to the highest level every single time she was in the water. In one extreme case, with only a 6-minute gap between two swims, she broke an Olympic record in one and swam a strong anchor leg that secured Australia a bronze medal in the other.

When media attention from around the world is cast on Emma McKeon, she has often been referred to as the “quiet achiever.” According to media interviews with her coach and other swimmers on the earlier Australian team, Emma appears quiet, reserved, not interested in seeking attention, and is happy to just focus on her swimming. Though Emma may behave differently elsewhere in her life, the traits she displays that are reported by those around her and that seem apparent during competitions are closely in line with the personality trait of introversion.

Emma already took home four medals five years ago in Rio. But if it was not for the two individual gold medals in sprint swimming in Tokyo—the type of swimming events that draw the most attention—and for consistently achieving podium position in every single event she participated in this time, Emma’s displayed personality suggests that she would likely continue to go less noticed by many people.

The Upsides of Introversion

Introverts may make up to half of the population, yet in some ways tend to be considered less favourably than extraverts. In many societies, individuals are frequently asked to be bold, social, assertive, and “leaderlike”—which means demonstrating personality traits that allow us to stand out and show dominance over others. Such preferences prevail in all domains of our lives—in schools, workplaces, sports, politics, and so on.

Yet the quiet power of introverts can be crucial to their success. Compared to extraverts, who enjoy stimulation from external sources, introverts enjoy spending time alone; they also prefer to listen more rather than talking, and they tend to think carefully before voicing their opinions. All these inward-facing qualities can help them to be deep thinkers and have remarkable focus and concentration.

No wonder, then, that research has found that introverts excel at tasks that require dedicated and uninterrupted attention, like academic performance. Research also shows that the personality trait of introversion is valuable for creativity, especially in the arts and sciences, as creativity requires an introspective process to which one dedicates by spending time alone. This can be especially important for the execution of creative tasks.

Even in the leadership domain, which is traditionally considered to be the realm of extraverts, the value of introverts is becoming more and more recognised. For instance, research has found that when leading a team of proactive followers—those who take initiatives to make suggestions and ideas at work—it is the introverted rather than extraverted leaders who tend to be the most effective. Introverted leaders tend to be more willing to listen to others’ ideas and are less likely to feel threatened by employees’ proactivity. Researchers also found that introverted leaders tend to demonstrate more servant leadership—the type of leadership that focuses on empowering and supporting followers.

When introversion is combined with other personality attributes such as conscientiousness, it can unleash even more power. Conscientiousness gives introverts extra capacities to be extremely thorough, hard-working, and persistent, which are key ingredients for success. According to Emma’s coach Michael Bohl, “Emma is a very reserved young lady but it's her will and determination… she's just incredibly focused.” And according to Australian swimmer Giaan Rooney, Emma is “such a beautiful, reserved, shy person, she doesn’t big-note herself at all—then she gets up on the blocks and blows them away.”

Don’t get me wrong—extraverts have their unique strengths, too. Yet in a society that overwhelmingly favours extraversion, we may need more deliberate recognitions of introverts whose hard work and achievements are more likely to go under the radar. As we reflect on the Olympics and the example of Emma McKeon, it’s worthwhile to highlight how introverts and those who display introvert-like behaviors can channel their incredible inward-facing power into excellence and perfection.