Why Introverts May Be Better Leaders for Our Times
Our culture, particularly in business and politics, seems to be in love with the charismatic, extraverted (also spelled extroverted) 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 American individualistic society, despite the fact that most modern economies and societies have become more collective and workers more educated.
Movies, television and the news media have significantly influenced our popular image of leaders — from Bill Clinton and Lee Iacocca to Larry Ellison, and Donald Trump — for the past three decades. This stereotypical view of charismatic, extroverted individuals has been associated with what we want and expect in our leaders.
Extraverted leaders are valued highly regardless of the reality of their performance. The status and reputation of quiet, introverted leadership is undervalued and under-appreciated. Despite decades of research on leadership pointing to other less demonstrative skills that are needed, extroverts are still favored in recruiting and promoting decisions. Yet recent research reveals that introverted, quiet leaders may be more suited for today’s workplace.
You can argue the case that Wall Street financial scandals and even foreign policy and political problems are linked to the dominance of extraverted leaders. In my 30 + years of work with senior business leaders, I have found most who got into trouble were extreme extraverts who are often also narcissists. Rarely did I encounter a highly respected introverted leader who shared the same fate.
Characteristic Traits of Extraverts vs. Introverts
Research by the Center for Application of Psychological Types reports that approximately 50–55 percent of American males are introverts. The figure for females is 47–55 percent. According to research by Myer Briggs organization, introverts are 50.7% and extroverts are 49.3% in the United States population. In their sample 45.9% of males and 62.5% of women were extroverted and 54.1 % men and 47.5% of women were introverted. Another study by the American Trends panel in 2014 conducted research on 3243 participants and asked them to describe themselves as extroverts or introverts. It was found that 12% of them were extroverted 5% were introverted, 77% lied between the two, and 6% were unsure.
Despite these statistics, extraverts are admired and emulated in American culture from early childhood on.
Yet historically some of our most successful and famous people were introverts. Examples are: Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Steven Spielberg, Barack Obama, Meryl Streep, Elon Musk, Dr. Seuss, Michael Jackson, and J.K. Rowling. Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building On Your Quiet Strength, writes that 40% of business executives are introverted.
The terms introversion and extraversion were popularized by Carl Jung, although both the popular understanding and psychological usage differ from his original intent. The traits of extraversion (or extroversion) and introversion are a central dimension in some human personality theories such as The Big 5 and the Myers-Briggs. Rather than focusing on interpersonal behavior, however, Jung defined introversion as an “attitude-type characterized by orientation in life through subjective psychic contents,” and extraversion as “an attitude-type characterized by concentration of interest on the external object”.
According to researchers extraversion is reflected in the desire to obtain gratification from outside oneself. Extraverts enjoy human interactions and tend to be enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, and gregarious. Extraverts are energized and thrive off being around other people. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups. They also tend to work well in groups. An extraverted person is likely to find less reward in time spent alone and they are more prone to boredom when they are by themselves.
The core question of why a person becomes introverted or extraverted tends to boil down to two key contributors: nature or nurture. Extraversion clearly has a strong genetic component. Twin studies suggest that genetics contribute somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the variance between extraversion and introversion. However, environment can also have an impact. Sibling studies have suggested that individual experiences carry greater weight than do shared experiences in families.
In a study published in Psychological Science, Daniel C. Feiler of Dartmouth University found that extraverts tend to be overrepresented in social networks. Because outgoing, popular people tend to have a lot of friends, they are disproportionately represented in social networks. “If you’re more extraverted, you may really have a skewed view of how extraverted other people are in general,” explained Feiler, “If you’re very introverted you might actually have a pretty accurate idea.”
Extraversion has been correlated with a number of different outcomes. Among the positive outcomes, extraverts tend to spend more time with other people, spend more time engaged in social activities, and tend to have more friends. Research has also suggested that extraverts tend to be happier than introverts as well as being less prone to certain psychological disorders. On the other hand, extraverts are also more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, including risky health behaviors.
Introversion is the state of being predominantly interested in one’s own mental or internal self. Introverts are typically perceived as more reserved or reflective. Some popular psychologists have characterized introverts as people whose energy tends to expand through reflection and dwindle during interaction. Few modern conceptions make this distinction. Introverts often take pleasure in solitary activities such as reading, writing, or meditating. An introvert is likely to enjoy time spent alone and find less reward in time spent with large groups of people. Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement, introversion having even been defined by some in terms of a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating external environment. They prefer to concentrate on a single activity at a time and like to observe situations before they participate, especially observed in developing children and adolescents. They are more analytical before speaking and many spend more time listening than they do talking.
Author Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, defines introversion and extraversion in terms of preferences for different levels of stimulation — distinguishing it from shyness (fear of social judgment and humiliation).
Mistaking introversion for shyness is a common error. Introversion is a preference, while shyness stems from distress. Introverts prefer solitary to social activities, but do not necessarily fear social encounters like shy people do. Cain says American culture is dominated by what she calls the “Extrovert Ideal”, described as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight”. Western societies, being based on the Greco-Roman ideal which praises oratory, favor the man of action over the man of contemplation, and view introversion as being between a disappointment and pathology, she says. In contrast, traditional Asian culture is more inclined to value reticence and caution.
Cain argues that modern Western culture misjudges the capabilities of introverted people, leading to a waste of talent, energy, and happiness. She describes how society is biased against introverts, and that, with people being taught from childhood that to be sociable is to be happy, introversion is now considered “somewhere between a disappointment and pathology.”
Concerning the workplace, Cain critiques today’s perceived overemphasis on collaboration: Brainstorming leading to groupthink, and meetings leading to organizational inertia. Cain urges changes to the workplace to make it less focused on what she terms “The New Groupthink” — the idea that creativity and productivity emerge from a necessarily gregarious place — and more conducive to deep thought and solo reflection. According to Cain, research shows that charismatic leaders earn bigger paychecks but do not have better corporate performance; that brainstorming results in lower quality ideas and the more vocally assertive extroverts are the most likely to be heard; that the amount of space allotted to each employee has shrunk 60% since the 1970s; and that open office plans are associated with reduced concentration and productivity, impaired memory, higher turnover and increased illness. Cain says that the more creative people tend to be “socially poised introverts,” solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient for creativity, and office designs and work plans should allow people to be alone as well as to socialize.
The COVID virus pandemic may have inadvertently been a positive development for introverted employees with the prevalence of remote working, where people can work alone in their homes.
What About “Ambiverts?”
Elizabeth Bernstein, writing in The Wall Street Journal says social psychologists and behavioral scientists now believe that the adaptability of the ambivert may provide some personal and professional advantages.
A 2013 study of ambiverts, by Adam Grant published in Psychological Science, looked at 340 call-center employees who answered a personality test to determine their type. Over a three-month period, the best performing employees were ambiverts. Their average revenue per hour was $208, compared with $138 per hour for those employees who were either introverts or extraverts.
What is an ambivert? An ambivert is someone who exhibits qualities of both introversion and extraversion and can alter their behavior depending on their moods, their goals and the situation they are in.
Ambiverts have also been called:
- Outgoing introverts: An introvert who can be outgoing in certain situations or around certain people … or when they absolutely need to.
- Antisocial extraverts: An extrovert who needs time to recharge before socializing or likes to be alone more than a typical extrovert.
- Social introverts: An introvert who can dial up into extroversion when needed.
Our Preference for Extraverted Leaders
In western society, extraversion is celebrated. The outgoing and enthusiastic nature of a person who gets things done and is a great communicator is considered an asset. Much of our public life is dominated by extraverts. In fact we’re living in an “extrovert ideal”.
Extraverted individuals have been shown to perform good results in an extraverted culture such as sales, entertainment and politics. According to The Owner’s Manual for Personality at Work, by Pierce Howard and Jane Howard, many extravert managers are comfortable leading by wandering around, enjoy being in the thick of things, handle a heavy meeting schedule well, enjoys meeting and greeting, likely to have an extensive network of contact inside and outside the organization.
Extraverts and Introverts as Leaders: Research
Frances B. Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength, offers five key characteristics of introverted leaders:
- They think first and talk later. They consider what others have to say, then reflect and respond.
- They focus on depth not superficiality. They like to dig deeply into issues and ideas before considering new ones.
- They exude calm. In times of crisis in particular, they project reassuring, unflappable confidence.
- They prefer writing to talking. They are more comfortable with the written word, which helps them formulate the spoken word.
- 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.
So who are the introverted leaders? Warren Buffett, was one example cited by Nancy Ancowitz, author of “Self-Promotion for Introverts,” writing in Psychology Today. Despite our culture being biased against quiet and reserved people, says Susan Cain, “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 by William Blake, Paradise Lost, was ‘dashed off’ by a party animal.”
Geoffrey James of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, published a study, “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity,” in the Academy of Management Journal, and concluded the following:
- “Our research examined these behavioral traits in 184 business students, but it’s well established that introverts occupy fewer leadership positions than extraverts. Introverts are less likely to formally emerge as leaders in organizations through the usual promotion and selection channels.”
- “Until recently, the popular scientific view was that extraverts generally perform better as leaders than introverts. Extraverts have a set of characteristics that make them appear leader-like, and these characteristics also foster certain effective styles of leadership (for example being charismatic and inspirational). This also makes sense intuitively, as extraverts are dominant, confident, persuasive and expressive and therefore should make better leaders. However, recently this idea has been challenged and there is a growing appreciation of introverts both in and outside the workplace.”
A study published in the International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Development recently explained why introverts make such good leaders:
- Introverts think before they speak. Extraverts tend to shoot from the hip, often with a “ready-fire-aim” attitude. Introverts are more likely to think things over, consider how their words will affect others, and only then speak out.
- Introverts are better listeners. Where an extravert will simply ignore a dissenting view and then make a “gut decision,” an introvert tends to carefully consider the comments and perspectives of others before making an important decision.
- Introverts are deeper thinkers. Extraverts tend to jump from subject to subject to get “big picture.” Introverts prefer to delve into issues before making decisions and moving on to other subjects.
- Introverts prefer writing to talking. While many introverts are inspirational public speakers (like Barack Obama), they believe that writing a coherent document forces the brain to hone and clarify its ideas.
- Introverts are calmer in a crisis. As the analysis put it, introverts “project a reassuring, calm confidence. They tend to speak softly and slowly regardless of the heat of the conversation or circumstances.”
A study, “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity”, published in Academy of Management Journal, conducted by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino, and David Hofmann found the following in their research:
- Quiet bosses with proactive teams can be highly successful, because introverted leaders carefully listen to what their followers have to say.
- In one study of 57 store managers of a national pizza chain, Grant and his colleagues found that when employees were highly proactive, taking initiative to generate and implement ideas and suggestions for improvement. Stores managed by introverts had 14% higher weekly profits than stores managed by extraverts.
- Extraverted leaders, on the other hand, can be a liability if their followers are extraverts who like to take the initiative and make suggestions. This is because extraverted leaders are generally less receptive to proactivity: As Gino puts it, extraverted leaders often “end up doing a lot of the talking and not listening to any of the ideas that the followers are trying to provide.” They’re more effective with passive subordinates who are comfortable with being told what to do.
- Grant and his colleagues found was a simple inverse relationship: When employees are proactive, introverted managers lead them to earn higher profits. When employees are not proactive, extraverted managers lead them to higher profits. “These proactive behaviors are especially important in a dynamic and uncertain economy, but because extraverted leaders like to be the center of attention, they tend to be threatened by employee proactivity,” Grant notes. “Introverted leaders, on the other hand, are more likely to listen carefully to suggestions and support employees’ efforts to be proactive.”
- Grant says the study has broad implications for corporate leaders who want to examine their own leadership styles as well as make changes in the lower management ranks. “We tend to assume that we need to be extremely enthusiastic, outgoing and assertive, and we try to bring employees on board with a lot of excitement, a clear vision and direction,” Grant says, “but there is real value in a leader being more reserved, quieter, in some cases silent, in order to create space for employees to enter the dialogue.”
Clinical psychologist Laurie Helgoe states in Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, introverts have an “internal power — the power to birth fully formed ideas, insights, and solutions … An introvert who sits back in a meeting, taking in the arguments, dreamily reflecting on the big picture, may be seen as not contributing — that is, until he works out the solution that all the contributors missed.”
A 2006 Servant Leadership study, conducted by Jane T. Waddell of Regent University, suggests that some of the virtues of servant leadership that we all admire are also attributes that are more likely to be found in those who have a preference for introversion. One of these virtues is humility. Servant leadership is characterized by a primary desire to be of service to others and to empower followers to grow. Servant leaders believe their company goals are best achieved by developing the potential of their workers. They’re not self-seeking and not interested in grabbing the limelight. On the contrary, they want to shine the light on others in the pursuit of a greater purpose: the success of their organizations, projects or ventures.
Beth Buelow, author of Insight: Reflections on the Gifts of Being an Introvert, describes introverted employees this way: “The introvert’s even temper creates a peaceful atmosphere that engenders trust and safety for those around them. Trust, in turn, helps us do business more effectively. Staying stable and calm in all situations — cultivating equanimity and composure — are the hallmarks of introverts. These attitudes can radiate to others in the workplace, and especially to customers. We can all sense when we enter a business if employees are on edge, which has a detrimental effect on our customer relation experience. If the operative word is calm, the introverts among us can teach us a thing or two.”
A study by researchers at the University of Chicago, and Harvard and Stanford Universities, concluded that introverted chief executives make better leaders. The researchers analyzed 4000 CEOs of publicly traded US companies into five broad personality traits, known by psychologists as The Big Five: Agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion (versus introversion), neuroticism (versus emotional stability), and openness to experience. The results of the study showed introverted CEOs outperformed companies ran by extraverts. Steven Kaplan, a co-author of the study, explained one of the main reasons for this finding shares is that when companies are in trouble, they often seek out a big personality.
The influence of a CEO introvert or CEO extravert can also be affected by existing team dynamics. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, extraverts tend to be an energizing force in an already agreeable group. However, when there is a lot of disagreement, extraverts tend to cause more conflict. They are often seen as sharing their opinions in a domineering and aggressive manner.
A 10-year study, called the CEO Genome Project, from a leadership advisory firm ghSmart and economists from two business schools, published in the Harvard Business Review, finds that the most successful chief executives often don’t fit the traditional stereotype. The researchers behind the study, used a database of assessments — comprehensive performance appraisals and extensive biographical information — of 17,000 C-suite executives, including 2,000 CEOs. The database includes everything from career history to behavioral patterns to how the executives performed in past jobs, decisions they’ve made and demographic information.Their analysis examined a sample of 930 of those CEOs to describe the traits and patterns that most predicted which ones became a CEO. They also gathered information on the performance of 212 of them to compare how top-performers’ behaviors lined up with the traits that tend to get CEOs hired.
The results of the study surprised the researchers. More than half of the CEOs who did better than expected in the minds of investors and directors were actually introverts, not the usual gregarious CEOs extraverts.
“The biggest aha, overall, is that some of the things that make CEOs attractive to the board have no bearing on their performance,” said Elena Lytkina Botelho, a partner at ghSmart and a co-founder of the project. “Like most human beings, they get seduced by charismatic, polished presenters. They simply do better in interviews.” Botelho says she doesn’t necessarily think introverts are always better performers, but that they may be more prevalent, and do better in her sample, because boards are so attracted to them. “I’ve been in the room and had directors express the concern — ‘this person is such a strong introvert, how will they really lead?’ ” she said. Similarly, candidates who displayed a lot of confidence had more than double the chance of being chosen as CEO, the study found, even though particularly confident CEOs were no more likely to show better performance once they got the job.
Other Reasons Why Introverts Make Great Leaders
In his article in Inc.com, Ilya Pozin identified 4 reasons why introverts make great leaders:
- They’re motivated by productivity, not ambition. There’s a misconception that introverted leaders are less motivated than extraverted leaders. In fact, introverted leaders are “simply motivated by different factors, and they measure success by different metrics. The introverted brain is wired differently in that its reward systems are triggered by different stimuli. Instead of recognition and professional advancement, an introverted leader gains more satisfaction from maintaining the team’s productivity and high-quality work.”
- They build more meaningful connections. Introverts are motivated by both by the quality of work as well as productivity, but at times they can seem less willing to focus on building personal connections, Pozin says: “As with their motivation, however, the connections introverts build just happen to be focused on different priorities. While they may not be openly conversational in large groups, introverts are great at developing deeper, more meaningful connections with employees and clients in a one-on-one setting. This genuine relationship-building makes an introverted leader more in tune with each member of the team than an extroverted leader might be.”
- They don’t get easily distracted. Introverts are better able to tune out the noise and concentrate, Pozin argues. “They draw their energy from within, and therefore they can easily focus on the task at hand without being distracted by loud conversations or other office noise. The ability to concentrate amid distraction further enhances the qualities that make introverts great leaders to begin with.”
- They solve problems with thoroughness rather than in haste. Problem-solving is the crux of all good leadership, and according to research, introverts typically have thicker gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain where abstract thinking and decision making happen. “This leads introverts to make a decision after giving it great thought and reflecting on creative ways to solve problems. Research has also found that introverts are less likely to make snap decisions, “ Pozin concludes.
Other research shows that introverted leaders also exhibit these strengths:
- They are prudent. Unlike their extraverted counterparts who are more sensitive to rewards, which explains why extroverts are more pre-disposed to risk-taking, introverts take a circumspect approach to chance. This is why you hear extraverts say things such as, “Let’s just do it!” whereas introverts prefer to ask, “are we sure this is the right thing to do?”
- They learn by listening. Rather than the flashy chit-chat that defines social gatherings, introverts listen intently to what others say and internalize it before they speak. They’re not thinking about what to say while the other person is still talking, but rather listening so they can learn what to say.
- They leverage their quiet nature. Remember being in school and hearing the same kids contribute, until shy little Johnny — who never said a peep — chimed in? Then what happened? Everyone turned around to look in awe at little Johnny actually talking. This is how introverts leverage their power of presence: they “own” the moment by speaking calmly and deliberately, which translates to a positive perception.
- They demonstrate humility. Not to say that extroverts aren’t humble, but introverts tend to have an accurate sense of their abilities and achievements (not to be confused with underestimated). Humility entails the ability to acknowledge mistakes, imperfections, knowledge gaps and limitations — all key ingredients for getting ahead in business and life. Being humble also indicates an openness to hear new ideas or receive contradictory information.
- They manage uncertainty. Since introverts have a lower sensitivity to external rewards than extroverts, they’re more comfortable working with little information and resisting self-defeating impulses. Introverts are also more likely to persist in finding solutions that aren’t initially apparent. Albert Einstein, an introvert, once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.”
- They are comfortable working alone. Even if you start a company through a partnership or joint venture, you will likely find yourself working alone at some point in your career. Introverts prefer working in isolation because it affords the greatest opportunity to focus.
When are we going to stop favoring, idolizing and promoting extraverted leaders, needing them to be bigger than life in a way reminiscent of celebrities and movie stars, and start appreciating the value of introverted, quiet, humble leaders, and accept the research evidence that the change will serve us better?