If you ask central casting to send over a CEO, you’ll likely get an energetic actor with a voice that carries. He’ll be comfortable standing in the center of the room, surrounded by people, because he’ll be drawing energy from the crowd. In short, they’ll send an extrovert.
We tend to imagine leaders as extroverts, but this stereotype isn’t necessarily true. I’m a leader who’s an introvert, and you might be too. If you are one, you’re in good company. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Wozniak, Steven Spielberg, and Larry Page all considered themselves introverts.
It shouldn’t be surprising that introverts have qualities every business needs. In fact, research shows that four out of 10 top corporate executives are introverts.
Misconceptions about introversion are rooted in our culture. When we think of effective leaders, our mind’s eye tends to gravitate toward images of leaders delivering awe-inspiring speeches to rally the troops and then charging into battle on white stallions, screaming for others to follow. But by limiting our view of leadership to these extrovert tropes, we run the risk of missing the power that introverts can bring to the table.
The pressure to live like an extrovert
In her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain explains that in America, our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts.
As a culture, we tend to value people on traits that are commonly associated with extroverts, such as an outgoing nature, openness, and inherent sociability. Placing these characteristics on a pedestal can put pressure on introverts to conform to these ideals if they want to be successful.
“Many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to pass as extroverts,” writes Cain. “The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.”
Acceptance of introverts must begin with introverts themselves, says Cain. Introverts must be the first to recognize their unique value and learn to maximize their strengths.
The hidden value of introverts
Introverts have many traits that are useful in a leadership capacity.
- Introverts develop deeper relationships. While extroverts tend to have a wide group of acquaintances, introverts run in smaller circles. As a result, they get to know people on a deeper level and form richer relationships. Introverted leaders tend to listen to employees’ desires and needs and take the time to support them.
- Introverts tend to think, then act. They make decisions based on data rather than shooting from the hip, thus reducing the level of risk in any decision.
- Introverts seek to understand before speaking. Terrible decisions have been made in business by teams that rely too heavily on the loudest voice in the room or the first suggested course of action. Often, the person who seems to be sitting on the sidelines may have unique insight that could change the course of the company.
- Introverts are cool under pressure. I rarely lose my cool, and this has served me well in the military and in business. Introverts try to understand an issue before they move to resolve it. This is a huge strength in organizations that scramble around with a “sky is falling” approach to everything. To introverts, that is exhausting!
- Introverts are able to focus. They don’t try to manage 100 things at once, which we all know isn’t effective. The ability to focus is a huge benefit for complex tasks that require close attention.
The curse of charisma
One of the most common misconceptions about introverts is that they are all painfully shy. While some introverts can be shy, some can become very open and outgoing in social situations. (The difference for an introvert, however, is that these encounters can be draining.)
In business, we tend to think charisma (a trait often associated with extroverts) equals effectiveness, but it can have its drawbacks. For example, charismatic leaders will often stick with a bad idea because they have already committed to it publicly, oftentimes leading organizations down a rabbit hole they could have avoided.
Conversely, introverted leaders focus more on getting the job done and less on letting everyone else know they’re planning on getting it done. They find it easier to pull the plug on a bad idea because they don’t fear public opinion.
It’s about balance
In my previous experiences, the most successful companies have diversity in their senior leadership teams. They have both extroverts and introverts. Leadership teams that recognize their differences and capitalize on them simply outperform those that don’t.
If you’re an extrovert, I encourage you to let data and careful reflection inform your decisions, instead of just your gut. Of course, there are times when leaders must make quick decisions to capitalize on an opportunity or respond to an emergency, but there are more times when slowing things down to give an issue proper analysis is critical. Recognize that not everything requires immediate action.
I would encourage introverts to be aware that our preferred tendencies could reduce the value of our contributions. If we don’t speak up, then our reflections are pointless. If extroverts tend to be guilty of “shoot, ready, aim,” introverts run the risk of missing the opportunity to shoot because they’re taking too much time aiming.
If you’re a leader, you can take advantage of both personality types by giving team members plenty of time to process information. You can encourage more voices in the room — not just the loudest ones. And if you can get comfortable in the quiet, you’ll find a balance that will benefit your entire company.