Is it time for introverts to step up?

Most leaders are extroverts, but introverts have plenty to offer

Extroverts get noticed. Extroverts can command a room, speaking loudly, enthusiastically and with speed. Introverts, on the other hand, are more stealth, speaking less often, reflecting and holding back.

So, would introverts make good leaders? At least two publications indicate yes.

It’s a matter of differentiating between those who are outspoken and those who are truly leaders, according to Susan Cain’s 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Introverts can be equally effective but with different types of employees, according to a 2011 study Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania, Francesca Gino of Harvard University and David Hoffman of the University of North Carolina.

Getting past misconceptions

Part of the problem is introverts are misunderstood. For one, they are not shy people, says Ray Williams, founder and president of training and development firm Ray Williams Associates in Vancouver.

“It’s just that they approach relationships and the way they do their work in a different way,” he says.

“(Extroverts) want to use the force of their personality and act upon the environment or other people in such a way as to make things happen, so they’re constantly relating to outside of themselves as a way of seeing the world.”

Introverts, on the other hand, don’t want to act upon other people or the environment to make things happen, they want to allow things to develop and be a much more reflective person, says Williams.

“It doesn’t mean the introvert is not equally as confident about their abilities or that they have less ability or intelligence or capability of leading, but it is a much different style of leadership.”

An extrovert draws energy from interacting with people while an introvert loses energy, says Karl Moore, associate director of the Advanced Leadership Program at McGill University in Montreal.

“I know senior leaders who are introverts and they recognize that part of their job is to schmooze with people, to go out and work a crowd, and they do it. But they’re more tired at the end of it, where it really is work.”

But in the last few years, with more women rising in the ranks, there’s been a recognition that traditional models of leadership — consisting of extroverted males — can be adjusted, says Moore.

“(Introverts) can make superior leaders because they’re more apt to listen, less apt to jump to their own ideas, more apt to really pay attention and give attention to people’s ideas where extroverts, our weakness is we too quickly jump, we’re articulate, we run over people’s ideas and we just rush forward without enough thought, at times.”

Introverts bring a lot of positive things to the table, both as employees and leaders.

“They tend to be more thoughtful and, given more time to think and analyze, they can really bring a lot of good ideas,” says Moore. “Introverts may be a better match when you’re looking for innovation and creativity.”

Introverts are good at working with other people to bring out their capabilities and be independently productive and successful, without the need for excessive supervision or direction, says Williams.

“They’re really good at mentoring and empowering and inspiring others in a quiet way, rather than a ‘Rah rah, let’s go’ way.”

With today’s employees being well-educated, self-possessed and self-motivated, there is less of a need for an extroverted leader to control their work, he says.

Introverts also tend to think first and talk later, and talk less, says Williams, while extroverted leaders are prone to jump in before considering what they’ve said.

“Introverts focus on depth,” he says. “They really dig deeply into whatever they have to face before they go through the process of saying, ‘I think I’ve got the (answer),’” he says.


To have successful introverted leaders, it’s a matter of working with them a bit differently, says Moore.

“Introverts don’t need to be alone but they prefer smaller groups and if there’s a certain flexibility in the leadership position, if you work with smaller groups or bigger groups, then you can do that and still do your job well.”

Because of the nature of business culture, an introvert would not typically step forward to take on a leadership role because she doesn’t think her style is valued, says Williams. And she may not be promoted because the people with authority are often extroverts, so they won’t see that style as being like their own.

“The opportunities to advance and be promoted are a lot less because of that, because of the norm,” he says.

And yet if there is a really talented introvert and an organization runs on a teamwork basis with bright and capable employees, an introverted leader may be the perfect person to work with them, says Williams.

To help boost the profile of introverts, workplace culture should be addressed, he says. That can mean communications at meetings should not overly value the person who says the most or is most aggressive, and encouraging quiet people to speak up.

“It becomes the job of the team leader to start enforcing the notion that quiet contribution is just as valuable as a lot of words,” says Williams.

“It really becomes the responsibility... for senior leaders and the HR people and recruitment people (to recognize) that a good leader is not necessarily someone who’s charismatic and aggressive, moves fast, likes to talk, be in the limelight. We have to be really careful that that’s the way we stereotype leadership and open our minds to the fact there are different kinds of leaders in different situations.”

HR support

Preparing introverts for leadership

Tips for employers:
• Assign an external coach to help the employee build communication skills and confidence; supplement with behavioural assessments to confirm strengths and development areas.

• Showcase the employee’s talents and passion whenever possible; minimize the focus on behavioural temperament.

• Help the employee build a career trajectory through secondment to other divisions, territories.

• Establish formal and informal networking opportunities with upper management.

• Reward and recognize employee’s development successes.

Tips for introverts:
• Volunteer to lead committees and participate on important task forces to get noticed.

• Attend workshops (but not web-based ones) and read books on persuasion, influence and leadership.

• Seek public speaking opportunities, join speaking groups.

• Identify a mentor — this can be an extrovert or successful introvert in a leadership role.

• Build your resumé and confidence through volunteer work outside of the office, preferably in a leadership capacity.

Compiled by Rebecca Heaslip, president of Leadership Insight in Oakville, Ont.

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