The article is for all the introverts out there who have risen to a leadership position. Looking at your peers, you may intuitively notice as you look laterally and above you what the data show: 96% of leaders self-report as extroverts. You may be wondering if you can succeed and be effective as a leader, given your personality type. Let’s look at what at the science has to say.
First, can you fake it til you make it?
Your first course of action may be to consider, can I just act like an extrovert until I become one? The science of personality suggests that this would likely be an uphill battle. The Big 5 personality traits (which have more research backing than the Myers-Briggs framework) have been shown to have strong consistency over time, with only moderate changes over many years. The Extroversion/Introversion trait is highly stable; it can vary somewhat over time, but not significantly. So your best bet is to figure out how to play to your own strengths as an introvert.
The research summary that follows re-frames leadership from having “correct and incorrect” styles to “pros and cons” that pair with personality type. There is a way to play to your sweat spots and craft your environment for success.
You may remember the best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can ́t Stop Talking. Authored by Wall Street lawyer turned author, Susan Cain, who took the reader through her seven years of aggregated research on the strengths that introverts wield and the cultural dynamics that they navigate. Adam Grant has recently brought back to the fore some of the key findings on what type of people introverts manage best. Below is a summary of the key points for business leaders to consider.
In Index Card Summary style, the three key lessons to keep in mind, and that I walk through below are:
1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people.
2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America.
3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in.
1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people
Cain and Grant both cite introverts as being uniquely good at leading initiative-takers. Their inclination to listen to others and lack of desire to dominate social situations makes introverts more likely to hear and implement suggestions. By encouraging the talents of their teams, they can more easily motivate them to be even more proactive. The challenge for introverts is to manage misguided or less proactive employees.
2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America
As Cain shared with Business Insider, “Extroverts are routinely chosen for leadership positions and introverts are looked over, even though introverts often deliver better outcomes. They’re not perceived as leadership material.” The modern American archetype of a leader is a talkative alpha who is comfortable in the spotlight – the more a person talks, the more attention they receive, and the more powerful they are perceived to be. The result is that introverts are seen as poor leaders by 65% of executive leadership. They also earn ~20% less and manage half as many people as extroverts, according to Truity Psychometrics.
3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in
Adam Grant posits that the dynamism of modern business environments makes proactive employees critical, and introverted leaders tend to encourage and cultivate such employees. The most effective teams are composed of a good mix of introverts and extroverts, and it is highly possible to create a symbiotic environment for both. Leadership can craft and distribute tasks based on people’s natural strengths and temperaments. For example, extroverts can more effectively manage information overload, high pressure, and multi-tasking, while introverts are better at solving complex problems through patience, clarifying, and persistence. Projects and their timelines can be crafted and distributed accordingly.
We need introverted leaders
Being an introvert does not make you a bad leader – in fact there are many strengths you can play to. The challenge is that you won’t be able to learn everything by example from your extroverted peers. Don’t focus on changing your personality – the science says this would be draining and would yield limited results. Your version of successful leadership will activate a more proactive workforce and enable you to tackle long-range problems.
To think of a classic introvert/extrovert duo, Bill Clinton and Al Gore immediately come to mind. One ascended to the presidency for 8 years, carried in part by his charisma. The other was perceived as dry and dispassionate on the campaign trail, but went on to be a pivotal leader in the modern climate change movement. Looking at Cain’s descriptions of personality characteristics, these aren’t surprising outcomes: perhaps Clinton is the action-oriented and rewards-sensitive extrovert, while Gore is the slower and more deliberate introvert, less attracted to wealth and fame. Which is a more effective leader? That, I would argue, is the wrong question.