Why Can’t Introverts Be Leaders?

Are extraverts really better leaders? Can an introvert be a good leader?

Posted Oct 27, 2012

I hope you realize the title is a rhetorical question.

Research has shown a consistent positive relationship between extraversion and leadership. In groups of strangers, such as a jury, extraversion predicts who will be selected foreperson of the jury (it’s actually likely to be the person who talks the most, and that person is probably an extravert). So, extraverts are more likely to be chosen for leadership positions (what we call leader ‘emergence’).

There is also a positive relationship (although a weaker one) between extraversion and leader effectiveness, particularly rated effectiveness of leaders. So it appears that extraverts have an edge, but does this mean that introverts can’t be good leaders? Of course not!

Many successful leaders are introverted, for example Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and in business, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. One of the best company presidents that I’ve known was easily the most introverted person among his executive team, but he was very successful and his colleagues admired his “quiet reserve and confidence.” So what is the critical factor that both extraverts and introverts need to emerge as a leader and to be effective?

Our research has suggested that the key element is good interpersonal, or social, skills. In one study, we looked at the relationship of extraversion to leadership emergence and effectiveness and found that the advantage that extraverts had disappeared when we put social skills into the equation (social skills mediated the relationship between extraversion and leadership). In other words, only extraverts who possessed social skills were effective leaders. Good interpersonal skills are critical whether the leader is an extravert or an introvert.

In addition, we know that we are more likely to choose leaders who look like their prototypes of leaders – they speak well, interact well with others, and just look “leader-like.” Extraverts just naturally look more like a prototypical leader (particularly political leaders) than do introverts. [Think of the U.S. presidential campaign where presidential hopefuls were evaluated for how much each looked like he or she could be the Commander-in-Chief].

 The key to leadership success then is to develop the people skills needed to look like a leader, but to also develop the good leader-follower relationships that are necessary for success. If you possess these skills, introversion and extraversion don’t matter very much.

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