The introverted leader’s secret weapon (Part 1)
Those people who know me well on both a personal and professional level will recognise two characteristics in me – Firstly, I am a very clear extrovert, or should I say have a strong extroverted preference (in Myers Briggs’ terms).
I am also a positive psychologist, and contingent to this is my belief that personal life is more enriching and work life more successful when one focuses on using their personal strengths– which are not just areas of competence or skill, but specifically are the “underlying qualities that energise you’ (Brewerton & Brook); these are the things we love to do, so much so that we can lose track of time, and are therefore most likely to practice and become good at.
During my time operating as a consultant business psychologist, I observed first-hand the top leaders on personal journeys striving to be the best version of themselves, delivering results differently to the next leader by harnessing their personal strengths and in turn using these to mitigate their weaker areas. That’s why the ongoing quest to distil leadership ability down to a particular personality type or style does frustrate and intrigue me with equal measures.
In my work at Interim Partners I continue to think about leadership style, and often when meeting clients and interims where appropriate I will encourage a discussion about personal sources of energy, as well as MBTI types. In particular, those with an introverted preference I admit I regard with some wonderment and intrigue as this couldn’t be further from my own personal style.
Whilst many studies evidence that significant leadership positions are occupied by all 16 MBTI types, let’s be clear, to succeed as leaders, introverts often have to overcome a strong cultural bias. In a 2006 survey, 65% of senior corporate executives viewed introversion as a barrier to leadership, and other studies have shown that highly extroverted U.S. presidents are perceived as more effective. Potentially as a result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, indeed 60% of top level executives display an extroverted preference (Ones & Dilchert, 2009). Yvonne Arrowsmith, the Chief Executive of East Thames Group with an introverted preference told me that there is “the feeling that leaders need to be extrovert, larger than life, loud and pushy” As humans, we often have a tendency to mistake loudness for confidence, and outward aggression for strength.
As such, extroverts may have an easier time rising to the top of an organisation. Once at the top, however, it may be the traits and behaviours most often associated with introverts are the ones that separate successful leaders from failures.
“Listen first and speak later”
I personally have always coveted an introverted leader’s natural preference to reflect, and not be driven by the urgency to be heard first or quickly stamp opinions and ideas. Speaking to Hyde Group’s Director of Corporate Services Steve Aleppo, an executive leader also with a self-confessed introverted preference, he describes his natural style as to “listen first and speak later”. He admits that it has had its drawbacks whereby “more extroverted colleagues do initially mistake this for a lack of confidence”. Yvonne Arrowsmith, agrees that “some people will try to overlook you, I have experienced some extroverted leaders talking over me, trying to dismiss my viewpoint”. Accordingly, Yvonne has developed some robust coping methods to deal with this situation – and indeed “they soon learn that you should never underestimate an introverted leader”.
On balance they have both turned their style into a virtue – Steve says “my colleagues regard me as a deep listener and that I add value by asking questions”. What a more reflective style also means is that “I catch some of the balls that are missed”, which combined with “respectively listening and clarifying points, can really help with negotiation, as people typically find my style non-threatening”.
Another interesting point that Steve makes is that in a customer centric organisation such as Hyde Group, there is benefit in encouraging his colleagues to adopt aspects of his style; listening and reflecting more on the customer’s needs, particularly when dealing with challenging situations.
Participative leadership style
Another positive side-effect of this approach is the space it can give for other team members to contribute. A study by Grant, Gino & Hoffman worked with the hypothesis that in dynamic, unpredictable environments, introverts are often more effective leaders—particularly when workers are proactive, offering ideas for improving the business. They posit that such behaviour can make extroverted leaders feel threatened.
In contrast, introverted leaders tend to listen more carefully and show greater receptivity to suggestions, making them more effective leaders of vocal teams. Yvonne relates closely to this and describes her leadership style as “more approachable for staff at all levels, my natural style is to involve and empower staff, to listen to others’ ideas and to accept that people make mistakes and should be able to tell me without fear of my reaction”.
This idea was tested in a field study of retail franchises, where staff proactivity and leadership introversion/extroversion was measured.
The results showed that in franchises where workers offered ideas, extroverted leadership was indeed associated with 14% lower profits. But where employees weren’t very proactive, extroverted leadership was associated with 16% higher profits than average.
Arguably the inference from this study is not that it is extroverts or introverts that are the better leaders, rather it is the best leaders whom are more self-aware and therefore better able to flex their style according to the audience and situation.
So my reflexion (and I need to do much more of this), is perhaps I should spend less time fixating on what the introverts are plotting, and more time on how I am better able to harness my personal strengths and achieve the same results in a natural and authentic way.
Have you experienced cultural bias as a leader with an introverted preference? As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts.
S. J. Rubenzer , T. R. Faschingbauer , & D. S. Ones (2000). Assessing the U.S. presidents using the revised NEO Personality Inventory. Assessment, 7, 403–420
Deniz S. Ones, S. Dilchert (2009) How special are executives? How special should executive selection be? Observations and recommendations. Industrial & Organisational Psychology, Volume 2, pp. 163-170
A.M, Grant, F, Gino & D.A. Hoffman M. (2011) Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity. Academy of Management Journal, Journal 54, no. 3 (June 2011)