Do introverts make the best leaders?

Evidence-based management principles question the effectiveness of the archetypal bold and outgoing leader. Can organisations actually achieve far greater success by shifting the focus to quieter types? Rob Dickerson, former Menarini Sales Director, discusses.

Imagine the folly of a pharmaceutical company deciding to launch a product without any research, trials, testing or evidence. It couldn’t happen and we wouldn’t want it to occur. Most would agree that on the path from molecule to market effective leadership across the organization is important. Yet when it comes to leader choices there may be little evidence-based science taken into account. An example of this is the choice to hire or promote introverted or extroverted leaders.

The common thinking and trend is to hire the extroverted individual, as they should do a better job of leading the troops than the introverted choice. Yet the global evidence reveals a very different story.

The caricature of the outspoken, confident leader doesn’t fit with the image of the typical introvert. Harvard University even screens out introverts as part of their MBA program in the belief that introverts can’t possibly make good leaders3. Despite the preference for extroverts by Harvard the correlation with leadership capability is not validated by research. The data demonstrated extroverts usually only exceed the leadership outcomes of introverted leaders when they are leading a particular sub-group6.

One of the reasons introverts are not regularly chosen for leadership positions is because of the many false beliefs surrounding this style in the corporate world. Some of the common myths leading to a bias away from introverts are listed below.

 1. Followers prefer extroverted leaders

2. Introverts prefer their own company

3. Introverts are too shy to make the tough decisions

4. Introverts are poor communicators

 
“This bias away from introverted individuals is a potential huge lost opportunity within many corporations.”

 

If the above list were true it would indeed seem foolhardy to place introverts in leadership positions. However, each of the five myths are inaccurate and misleading. This bias away from introverted individuals is a potential huge lost opportunity within many corporations. Let’s look at each one to uncover the facts surrounding introverted leaders and their potential to drive incredible success.

1. Followers prefer extroverted leaders

Following on from the introduction, research has shown that extroverted leaders can outperform introverted leaders when individuals within the group are more passive. However, when the team consists of proactive employees introverts are found to be more effective leaders3,6. Most companies spend considerable time in the recruitment process to find and hire proactive people. It makes more sense then, to provide these proactive team members with the right leader.

 

“Introverts are uniquely good at leading initiative-takers. Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions.”

Adam Grant

“… introverted leaders are able to build on this input and create a more positive team culture.”

Research undertaken by Wharton School Professor, Adam Grant, found that introverted leaders were able to consistently outperform their extroverted counterparts when leading proactive team members. When individual contributors want to put forward solutions and ideas it seems the introverted leaders are more receptive to this input. It makes sense then that introverted leaders are able to build on this input and create a more positive team culture.

2. Introverts prefer their own company

 
“(Introverts) like to focus on their inner world of ideas and experiences. They direct their energy and attention inward and receive energy from reflecting on their thoughts, memories and feelings.”

Briggs & Myers

 

Broadly, Briggs and Myers ascribed the differences in extroversion and introversion to a difference in the orientation of energy2. The extrovert is directed outward and the introvert is directed inward. From this model came the belief that introverts prefer their own company. Who would want a leader who preferred to be with herself and not with her team?

More recent studies have demonstrated the difference between extroverts and introverts is due to a greater sensitivity to external stimuli. Infants can now be accurately diagnosed as extroverted or introverted from the age of 4 months through the observation of their reaction to external stimuli such as sound and images3.

This increased sensitivity to external stimuli means that introverted adults can tire more quickly where there is an excess of visual and auditory stimuli – for example at a large party. However, introverts are usually no different in small groups or in one-to-one meetings. The leadership advantage for the introvert with this greater sensitivity comes an increased ability to listen and pick up the subtleties of what is occurring within teams.

3. Introverts are too shy to make the tough decisions

In his classic book, Good to Great, Jim Collins uncovered an unexpected common thread amongst the most successful companies. While Collins and his team were not looking for any aspect of leadership they found a clear correlation with organizational success and the top leadership.

 
“Every one of the highest performing companies was led by an unassuming person described as quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing.”

Jim Collins

“…they are highly successful introverts who made one tough decision after another in the interest of creating a successful organization.”

Collins named these individuals as Level 5 leaders and describes this group of channeling their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. These are not extroverted leaders. Rather, they are highly successful introverts who made one tough decision after another in the interest of creating a successful organization.

Collins describes his Level 5 Leaders as self-effacing individuals who displayed the fierce resolve to do whatever needed to be done to make the company great. The companies led by these Level 5 types significantly outperforming their rivals and were hugely successful over a sustained period4,5.

4. Introverts are poor communicators

One of the reasons for this myth is our bias towards assuming speaking dominance correlates with capability. Several studies have shown the individual within the group who speaks first and speaks for the greatest percentage of time is assumed to be more capable and a default group leader. The research however, demonstrates there is no correlation between speaking dominance and competence1,8.

Unfortunately when senior leaders observe groups they are also susceptible to this false bias and may promote someone due to their speaking dominance.

There are numerous examples of highly effective introverted communicators throughout history and the best example may well be Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address is often referred to as one of the greatest speeches in American history. Lincoln was an introvert and delivered a two minute speech that would ultimately lead to equality for all members of the country.

“Even in the area of sales, introverts may have an advantage.”

Most introverts prefer not to spend a lot of time at wild parties due to their susceptibility to sensory overload. However, presenting to an audience is a very different situation. Here there is a purpose and a goal to achieve through the communication. There are many highly successful professional performers who are introverted yet are able to influence and perform with great skill.

Even in the area of sales, introverts may have an advantage. The research demonstrates that in the domain of sales introverts are capable of exceeding the results of extroverts7. The evidence seems to show that introverts may not be skilled at social small talk but are more than capable of driving positive outcomes through effective communication.

Do introverts make the best leaders?

Extremes at both ends of the spectrum of introversion and extroversion do not make successful leaders7. However, the extremely introverted individual will usually not find themselves in a leadership positions and are easily identified within organisations. With extroverts, the situation is the reverse. Extreme extroverts are readily placed in leadership positions as they seem to possess more of what are commonly deemed to be positive traits. The data shows that extreme extroverts are potentially as poor at leadership as extreme introverts. The opportunity for many organisations lies in getting the balance of both introverts and extroverts right.

General references

1. Anderson, C & Kilduff, G, Why Dominant personalities attain influence in face-to-face groups? The competence-signaling effects of trait dominance, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009, Vol 96, No 2, 491-503.

2. Briggs-Myers, I, 1998, Introduction to type: A guide to understanding your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, CPP, NY.

3. Cain, S, 2013, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Penguin, NY.

4. Collins, J, 2001, Good to great, Random House, NY.

5. Collins, J, Level 5 Leadership: The triumph of humility and fierce resolve, in Harvard Business Review, Jul 2005, 2-12.

6. Grant, A, 2013, Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success, Penguin, NY.

7. Pink, D, 2012, To sell is human: The surprising truth about moving others, Riverhead, NY.

8. Tannen, D, The power of talk: who gets heard and why, in Harvard Business Review, Sept 1995, 138-148.

 

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About the author:

Rob Dickerson has a reputation for driving strategic change and building formidable teams. He has worked in senior roles in Sales, Marketing and Learning & Development in the Asia Pacific region. In his role as Sales Director for Menarini, his Australian national team has been independently voted as Best Sales Team in the industry for the past four consecutive years. He is sought out as a regular speaker and MC at industry conferences.

Now residing in Switzerland, Rob can be reached via the following contacts:

Email: rob.dickerson@bigpond.com

LinkedIn: http://au.linkedin.com/in/robdickerson1/

Twitter: @RobertDickerson

Mobile: +41 7923 79531

In your opinion, do introverts make the best leaders?