Leadership and Personality: Introverts Can Lead, Too

Modern society values extroversion over its alternative. But where have all the quiet leaders gone?

As it turns out, they’re everywhere. They’re in (and making bids for) the White House. They’re running companies (they may even be running yours). They’re leading revolutions. They’re changing the way we view the world and how we interact with each other. Extroversion* and leadership needn’t be inextricably linked.

A recent opinion piece by Susan Cain in the New York Times, “Must Great Leaders Be Gregarious?” explores the issue of the introverted leader and the misconceptions about what leadership entails. Politics aside, it’s a thought-provoking essay on what it means to be a leader – Cain argues that an outgoing persona is not a necessary leadership attribute. What matters more is the “charisma of ideas.”

It makes sense that we often associate effective leaders with big personalities – their voices tend to carry after all. Many of the world’s leaders have been extroverts and it has served them well – their people skills and energy can draw crowds and inspire action. But as Cain writes, we often “prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say.” A skilled talker isn’t necessarily a skilled leader. If one’s talk of ideas is just that – talk – there can be no real leadership.

“We prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say.”

Dismissing introversion as a character flaw instead of a valuable personality type and communication style is to do a disservice to a substantial portion of the population. A very scientific Google search reveals that anywhere from 25-50% of the population are introverts, simply meaning that they draw their energy from within instead of externally. Ideas, memories, reflections – these are the things that make introverts tick. They tend to put thought before action, exercising a natural caution and restraint. “Shy” is not a synonym for “introverted.” Introverts like people, but they may not want to be around them all the time.

When I think of the leaders who have inspired me, I believe that the majority of them are introverts who have been able to socialize and collaborate when necessary. Cain cites personality psychologist Brian Little: “we all need to act out of character occasionally, for the sake of work or people we love.” An effective introverted leader knows how to talk to people, but more importantly knows how to listen to them.

For better or for worse, our society prizes extroversion as the ideal. Most of our school and work environments are designed to facilitate constant social interaction, and enabling teamwork certainly isn’t a bad thing. In fact, some of the best ideas are the result of an introvert-extrovert team. Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg. Sergey Brin and Larry Page. What we should be cautious of is alienating introverts in the interest of bolstering social interaction. We won’t produce the thoughtful, informed leaders we need if introverts don’t feel empowered to lead in the first place.

So please, introverts take heart and extroverts take heed: quiet power is still power, and charisma and charm matters less than ideas and actions.

*For the purposes of this post, I’ve settled on the more common spelling of “extrovert.”

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