An introvert and a leader: a feasible combination?

Source: Management Team (23/08/2017); Author: Katleen De Stobbeleir

What qualities does an effective leader need? The image people have of these qualities often appears to be based on certain assumptions. For example, a lot of people believe that a good leader needs to be extrovert to be able to inspire, influence and generate enthusiasm in a group. A large-scale survey in the United States has confirmed that. 65% of senior managers see introversion as a sign of weakness. Moreover, only 6% of senior managers saw advantages for leadership in an introvert personality.

It seems there is a stigma surrounding introverted leaders. They are considered to be not visible enough, not sufficiently able to inspire enthusiasm and not proactive enough. But is that negative image of the introverted leader actually justified? After all, aren’t figures such as Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates self-confessed introverts?

International research has indeed shown that the reality is not that clear cut. It is true that extrovert people feel spontaneously more attracted to leadership roles. That is also why they apply for these positions more often and stand more chance of being selected. But that does not necessarily mean that they are more effective leaders in practice. On the contrary, in fact. Research by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino and Dave Hofmann has demonstrated beyond any doubt that extroverts and introverts are at least equally effective on average. However, what does influence their effectiveness as leaders is the type of employees they work with.

If the team mainly consists of passive employees who like to receive clear guidance, an extrovert leader is the best match. And that even translates into an average of 16% more profit than in similar teams led by introverts. However, if the team is primarily made up of proactive employees who make their own suggestions and come up with ideas for improvements, extrovert leaders tend to be at a disadvantage. Here profits were an average of 14% lower than profits for introverted leaders in similar teams. In short: the enthusiasm and assertiveness of extrovert leaders seems to bring out the best in passive employees. However, extrovert leaders can generate frustration in proactive employees because they provide insufficient space for this type of employees’ creativity.

And this brings us back to where we started: can an introverted person be a good leader? Absolutely, but they need to be in a context where the emphasis is on proactive behaviour and self-management.

Firstly, introverted leaders are naturally more inclined to collect more diverse information before making a decision. This quality can come in useful in a volatile economy where agility is important. Introverted leaders understand, in fact, that some challenges are so complex that a small group at the top, or the company’s leaders, cannot solve them alone. They attach importance to the added value of different perspectives and proactivity from as large a group of employees as possible, who can help them find a response to complex challenges.

Secondly, research has shown that introverted leaders naturally radiate somewhat more calm than their extrovert counterparts. This character trait can certainly be an advantage in a context of uncertainty and negative emotions, such as during restructuring or other drastic changes within a company.

Furthermore, introverted leaders let their hands speak for them. In other words, they prefer writing to speaking. That can also be an advantage in a context in which social media is becoming more and more important.

Finally, it has been shown that introverts deal better with loneliness at the top.

In short: the time is ripe to adjust the negative image of introverted leadership that still persists. Besides proving to be completely unjustified, it also entails major risks. Stereotypical images of extrovert leaders as better leaders mean that introverts often disqualify themselves from leading roles, seeing themselves as unsuitable, when in fact they may have precisely the profile that their organisation needs.

Companies that want to select the most suitable leaders would therefore do better not to leave their choice so much up to chance. Actively seek out the best person for the job yourself, and don’t wait until the person who declares him- or herself to be best comes knocking at the door. Because the best candidate might just be a modest introvert...

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