Do introverts make better leaders? I’ve reflected on this question many times throughout my career. Regardless of whether it is politics, business or entertainment, it seems the more gregarious and outgoing the celebrity or public figure the more likely they are to attract attention, popularity and public appeal. Of course, attractiveness and charisma certainly help, but it often seems that outgoing personalities are more easily recognizable and, it seems, promotable.
The question remains though: are extroverts naturally better leaders? Is their extroversion a contributing factor in their success, and is it a prerequisite for leadership?
Challenging Conventional Norms
One of my favourite authors is Susan Cain. For those who may never have heard of her, she is an American writer, lecturer and lawyer who gained notoriety about ten years ago when she wrote an amazing book entitled “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”. Cain, by her own admission, is an introvert. The central thesis of her book is that Western society undervalues the characteristics and traits of introverts.
As a self-confessed introvert, I find a certain intuitive appeal in Cain’s central thesis. In my own career I have often marvelled at how extroversion has been successfully used by those in organizations to advance their careers. Equally amazing has been observing how organizational leadership automatically conflates extroversion with success, managerial ability and potential.
Where do the notions of extroversion and introversion originate? A lot of the substantive underpinnings come from Myers-Briggs, a personality assessment tool that originated during the First World War by American psychologists Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. Over the years the tool, known as MBTI, has been adapted and updated extensively.
In its simplest form MBTI is based on four principal psychological polarities which, it contends, is how we all interpret the world around us. These four continuums are: 1) extraversion-introversion; 2) sensing-intuition; 3) thinking-feeling; and 4) judgment-perception. Using an assessment questionnaire MBTI has since evolved to the state where it is now possible to identify sixteen different personality types based on the unique combination of scores someone displays on their assessment.
Of the four polarities none has garnered as much attention as the extraversion/introversion scale. The main thrust of much of the research is that this scale demonstrates the source of many people’s energy. Extroverts, it contends, derive their energy from interactions with people. They enjoy spending time with people, they are pre-disposed to action, and they prefer breadth of knowledge and influence rather than depth. By contrast, Introverts are considered thinkers, and relish opportunities to examine issues in detail. They prefer in-depth discussions to superficial interactions, and they are energized by spending time alone and in reflection.
One would think that a workplace that combines the best of the skills and talents of extroverts and introverts in good measure has the potential for both diversity and success. In theory, that may be true. Practically speaking though, workplaces are naturally pre-disposed to extroverts.
This reality came home to me about 15 years ago when I was working in the Human Resources Department of a large Canadian bank. As part of a professional development exercise our senior leadership team decided it would be interesting to have everyone in our department complete a leadership profile. The assessment was self-scored, and upon completion our leadership team had us identify our managerial style. While this assessment wasn’t MBTI, it had many similar elements. 60% of our department were deemed “people managers”, “entrepreneurs” and “extroverts”. The rest of us were classified as “analysts”, “organizers” and “introverts”.
Three things resonated with me that day as I reflected on the composition of the different groups. First, every single person at or above the level of “Director” was considered an extrovert. Second, every extrovert was in a role with high visibility and recognition. Third, the tenure of those who were classified as “introverts” was much longer than those in the extrovert category.
Surviving in an Extrovert’s World
My MBTI profile is “INTJ” (i.e. introversion, intuition, thinking, judging). I am, by nature, shy, but through participation in public speaking contests in my youth I learned some skills to enable me to compete in a world of extroverts. That being said, I’m not naturally gregarious, and it takes a lot of effort for me to put myself forward in social settings. While I can be the centre of attention I don’t necessarily like it, or have a compelling need to dominate every discussion.
As a coach, I have worked with many introverts struggling to compete for promotion. Many of them have found it challenging securing advancement. One experience of a client last year is especially insightful.
My client, “Valerie” (not her real name) worked for a major U.S. corporation. She had been employed in various divisions of the company, but had not yet penetrated the “glass ceiling”. After some exploration it became evident that one thing that was holding her back was that she was competing in a workplace dominated by extroverts. Most of the people around her were middle aged men with established track records, social connections, and who were extremely adept at socializing. By her own admission Valerie did not excel in small talk, schmoozing or self-promotion. She subscribed to the belief that if she did a great job her talents and performance would naturally result in a promotion. Relying upon that outdated belief resulted in her being overlooked for several opportunities.
Valerie was smart, charming, thoughtful, talented and knowledgeable in her field. What she lacked was confidence and the ability to “put herself forward”. Valerie was an introvert, and being outgoing and gregarious did not come naturally to her. She wondered about whether she needed to just “play the game”, abandon her genuine self, and start emulating the skills and traits of an extrovert.
The strategy we developed was unique. We started by having her develop her Elevator Speech. We then practiced a range of questions in mock interview sessions that were designed to highlight her unique value proposition. We also developed a networking strategy to identify and target key senior managers in her department with whom she could liaise in order to promote her candidacy. The plan worked really well. Valerie competed for four promotional opportunities, and was the preferred candidate in three of them. She was in the unique position where she could pick her promotional opportunity.
The Introvert’s Value Proposition
One of the things Valerie did that made her successful was that she differentiated her brand. She didn’t try to be “one of the boys”. She understood what made her unique, and she was able to leverage that successfully. Self-awareness and being introspective are skills that come naturally to introverts.
So, what are the characteristics that make an introvert unique? Here, I submit, are some of the distinguishing traits:
- Analytical and Perceptive – introverts are adept in probing issues or problems for meanings, patterns and deeper meaning;
- Introspective – introverts know themselves well, and they have an astute grasp and ability to read and interpret people, events and the world around them;
- Curious – introverts are inordinately curious about how things work, and they are adept in analysis and critical evaluation. They especially like to examine and explore issues and problems from different angles and perspectives;
- Skeptical – introverts are usually not easily duped or fooled. That is partly because they don’t accept things on face value, and they are accustomed to probing deeper for less obvious patterns and meanings;
- Cautious – introverts are generally not impulsive. Their proclivity is to carefully evaluate something to assess the risks and rewards prior to jumping in;
- Disciplined – introverts are very self-directed, and they typically possess a great deal of self-discipline;
- Self–Motivated – introverts derive much of their motivation and inspiration from deeply held beliefs and ideals. Introverts don’t need to be engaged with others or prompted to perform.
All of the preceding is not meant to say that introverts are not without our shortcomings. In the past, I’ve been criticized as cynical, negative, pessimistic, and aloof. Are those comments justified? Perhaps. Or, another way of looking at it is that maybe in a world dominated by extroverts we are often misunderstood.
A Final Thought….
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, is a great example of an extrovert leader. Extroverts usually possess great charm and charisma, and have a unique ability to inspire, attract and motivate others. We saw this on display during the Brexit campaign, and later, during the 2019 election in which Johnson’s Conservative Party made incredible inroads among voters in working class constituencies. However, as I reflect on the recent scandals that plagued his administration, and which ultimately led to his resignation, I wonder if more reflection, prudence and moderation might have served both him and his government better.
Do introverts make better leaders? Truly, I don’t know, and I’m unaware of any research that conclusively confirms this. What I do know is that introverts bring to organizations a different and important perspective, one that is often overlooked and dismissed by those with more ebullient, outgoing and congenial personalities.
Have you ever wondered whether you are an extrovert or introvert? Are you curious about your profile? Here is a hyperlink to a non-scientific and free assessment tool you may find insightful: