Do introverts make good leaders?
It is estimated that 33-50% of the population have a preference towards introversion. Yet research indicates that Introverts hold far fewer leadership positions than Extraverts. Why?
Two key reasons:
Introverts are not viewed as leaders. Many countries in the world depict leaders as charismatic, visible and inspiring. These are classic characteristics of Extraverts (those who get energy from external events and people and focus their attention outwards). However, Introverts (those who get energy from their inner world of thoughts and ideas and focus their attention inwards) often excel at the cerebral, or value-centred aspects of leadership which others cannot see.
Introverts don’t view themselves as leaders. As they progress through their careers, Introverts frequently focus on gaining depth of expertise. They are often attracted by technical or specialist remits rather than broad, people-leadership roles. Research also indicates that Introverts are less drawn to leadership roles as they tend to over-estimate negative emotions associated with leadership e.g. fear, worry, stress, and under-estimate positive emotions e.g. excitement, interest.
However, many behaviours typical of Introverts are also qualities of good leaders.
Let’s take a look at three key qualities.
• Introverts are natural listeners. Leaders who listen are perceived as being open-minded and curious. Introverted leaders also tend to give individuals time and space to contribute and are therefore well suited to facilitating collaboration, an important aspect of leading others.
• In contrast, Extraverts may not always be as good at listening: they are often thinking about what they want to say while the other person is still talking. Extraverts can find it difficult to hold back and are at risk of dominating discussion. They enjoy thinking aloud, problem solving in real time, which can exclude more reflective types who prefer to go away, think about an issue, and come back with a well-honed argument.
• So, in terms of listening, surely Introverts have the edge? This can be true, as long as they show that they are listening, through their body language or by making a contribution. If Introverts forget to engage externally whilst their mind is whirring internally, team members may get the impression that they are not listening.
• Introverts are often cautious. They take time to assimilate and evaluate options, thinking things through before acting, sometimes without acting. Others can be assured that their decisions are considered and are unlikely to change the next day. Introverts also notice detail and connections – a powerful aid to problem solving when combined with deep contemplation. Introverted leaders don’t speak so often, but what they say invariably has substance.
• However, the reflective approach used by Introverts could mean that they miss fleeting opportunities. Also, employees expect leaders to be the first to speak out on an issue, setting the tone and agenda for others. A delay may be perceived as absence of direction or lack of clarity. Introverts also need to remember to take a moment to explain their vision to others. If they omit to do this, much of their thinking remains in their head and the team can feel left in the dark.
• In contrast, those who are strongly extraverted are often sanguine, opportunistic and want to ‘just do it’. Although this may result in the need to course correct, Extraverts are more likely to keep channels of communication flowing, enabling others to remain informed. They get on and make decisions and take action – showing leadership from the front.
• Introverts have plenty of energy and enthusiasm – but they keep it inside. Their propensity to internalise feelings and experiences, including stress, means that they remain calm in a crisis. This provides stability for others. However, this same quality of emotional control also means that under pressure, Introverts can withdraw and forget to communicate – just at the time when others are looking to them for guidance and reassurance.
• Introverted leaders also risk being perceived as less approachable or detached when they contain their feelings too much. A leader’s own style often sets the tone and culture: being less willing to disclose information about yourself and the challenges you face can keep relationships at a distance, and in turn reduce feelings of mutual trust.
• In contrast, Extraverts are generally more transparent, exposing their passions and emotions. When things are going badly, they may inadvertently transmit their impatience or dominance, which could have an adverse effect on others. However, in everyday situations, an upbeat attitude can drive people’s emotions in a positive direction. This openness and sharing is often reciprocated and brings teams closer together. It enables leaders to be in tune with the feelings of others – resonant leadership (see Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman).
In essence, effective leaders are likely to be those who incorporate some of the strengths of other personality types into their own leadership behaviours.
• Introverts are likely to be better leaders if they learn to share the richness of their thinking sooner and are more open and expressive.
• Extraverts can benefit from remembering to tone it down, actively listen, and focus more on others and less on themselves.
However, no leader is 100% Extravert or 100% Introvert – personality lies on a continuum. Self-awareness is key. Introverts can make good leaders if they are cognisant of when, and how, they can balance inherent introverted behaviours with learned extraverted behaviours.
Isabelle Ridgwell – Chartered Psychologist
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