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Introvert Leaders: Still Waters Run Deep

Posted on the 19 November 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost

We have been made to believe that extroverts are the best leaders in the business world. Extroverts generally possess dominant alpha traits that give them leverage and visibility enabling them to get promoted and hired faster than other candidates. The general perception is that these individuals are effective, go-getters, motivators and loved by colleagues and subordinates alike.

However, do the other traits of extroverts such as their endeavor to be the center of attention and to control discussions, their tendency  to takeover tasks delegated to subordinates and their reserved  cautious reaction to proactivity from further down the chain of command, foster a growth environment or are introverts better apt in some cases to lead?

According to a survey conducted by HBR in 2006: “65% of corporate executives viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership”. Yet, it is estimated that introverts represent one-third of the population. This is of significance and therefore deserves a deeper understanding of this personality trait in order to know how to react and work with introverts.

In a world that is far from the individualistic society that was marked by stereotyping of extrovert characteristics as leadership traits (aggressiveness, confidence bordering on arrogance, charisma….),  do these traits still hold in focus or are other “support” traits such as EQ and SQ needed? A study by Dr. Ronald E. Riggio published in 2011 found that when EQ was measured, extraversion was no longer an indicator of leadership. Extraverts who possess high skills of EQ and SQ are more likely to be effective leaders.

Introversion, a brief history

In many major theories of personality, introversion is a major focal trait.

Introversion and extraversion were made popular by the work of Carl Jung (1875-1961), a Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. His work laid the foundation for the big five theory of personality dimensions (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness). Extraversion-Introversion dimension is also a main block of the famous Myers-Briggs type indicator test that most companies use today.

Introversion traits and behaviors

As an introvert or a person working with one, an understanding of this personality dimension is imperative.

While extroverts focus outwards and seek social external stimulation and the rewarding feeling of being the center of attention, introverts tend to focus inwards. They are mostly quiet people. Social interaction tends to drain their “energy” and they usually need a “recharge” time after social stimulation or interaction.

Some common traits of introverts are empathy and self-awareness, i.e. seeking self-knowledge and self- understanding. They are emotionally private individuals who tend to learn by observation. While reserved and silent around large groups or unfamiliar people, they are very sociable and gregarious around people they know well.

Introverts think before they talk and need to fully understand a concept prior to voicing an opinion contrary to extroverts who mainly learn through trial and error.

Misconceptions relating to introverts

Introversion should not be confused with shyness. Shy people find it very difficult to socialize where introverts enjoy people. They simply don’t seek to be the center of attention. Shyness as defined by Susan Cain in “Quiet: The power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, is a fear of social reaction while Introversion is a reaction to social stimulation.

Some of the most common misconceptions about introverts are that they are distant and arrogant. These false impressions are a result of extroverts not able to read introverts correctly because extroverts cannot imagine why someone would prefer to be alone and that their company might not be welcomed at all times.

Among the misconceptions is the idea that introverts cannot have fun or relax. Well, they do, but in calm places and nature. Too much noise and they shut down. Literally, introverts’ brain is wired differently than extraverts. It is more sensitive to a neurotransmitter called Dopamine resulting in their high sensitivity to external stimuli.

People often try to change introverts and interact with them as if there is something ‘wrong’ with their personality. They believe that they should become extroverts. This is far from being true, there is no right or wrong personality traits, extraverts and introverts should make mutual effort to understand each other’s similarities and accept their differences.

A 1986 study by Silverman, Ph.D. showed a correlation between IQ points and introversion. The higher a person is on the introversion spectrum, the higher their IQ.  So introverts have nothing ‘to fix’ in their personality. Actually, the most famous musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, mathematicians and doctors were introverts (I will include a short list at the end of my article).

Introvert at work

Introverts operate better in business environments when given a quiet place to work. They do favor solitude because of the richness of their inner conversations. They need time to process the tasks at hand and accumulate/analyze data to present an output.

Spontaneous immediate answers are not a forte for the introverts. Put on the spot, their answers might seem incoherent. It should be noted though that this does not mean they lack knowledge or ideas. Ideas are their “default mode” of operation, verbiage is not.

Introverts, contrary to popular belief, do enjoy and are rather fascinated by the company of people. However, social interaction for them is best when in small number and doses.

Introverts: better leaders?

When it comes to better leadership style, it is not black or white. It is irrational to unequivocally determine that introverts or extraverts make better leaders. The issue is not absolute.

Numerous researches support either postulate. Too many variables are involved. Some types of business are better managed by introverts than extraverts and vice-versa.

The factors determining the leaders’ emergence, whether introvert or extravert, are interpersonal and social skills. The advantage that extraverts have disappears when social skills are absent or inadequate.

The key to leadership development – resulting in success- is to  develop people skills needed to function as a leader. When people skills – whether social or interpersonal – exist, introversion and extraversion do not carry much weight anymore.

So, to sum it all up

Personality matters. But skills matter more, especially when complex social behavior come into play. Extraverts may be attention seeking individuals, but without the social skills, it is unlikely for them to be good effective leaders.

Therefore, while extraversion is predictive of many positive social outcomes, it is not the core trait that matters in business. Social traits are better predictive of success than personality.

Finally, it is interesting to note that introverts are with an impressive company that includes: Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Gandhi, J.K. Rowling, Albert Einstein, Larry Page (Google co-founder), Barack Obama, Steve Wozniak (Co-founder of Apple).

In my opinion, leadership at the work place leans more towards being a strategic decision, i.e. adapting to different situations, than it being a function of personality.

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