Introverts and Leadership: Can They Share the Same Skin?

At a recent conference, I spoke to a group of project managers on the importance of adding people leadership to their toolkit. Time did not permit me to answer all of the questions afterwards, so I want to take advantage of my blog to answer a question that I heard after that meeting (and that I often hear at other meetings) when I speak on leadership.

“How can an introvert excel at People Leadership?”

First, understand the difference between introvert and extrovert. You might tend to think of introverts as quiet, shy people more inclined to look at their own shoes while they’re talking to someone, and we think of extroverts as loud, boisterous, spontaneous individuals who can best be described as the life of the party, right?

In reality, introversion and extroversion are best defined as ways that individuals charge their energy levels. At the end of a long day, extroverts get an energy boost by being around others and getting involved in social interaction. Introverts, on the other hand, might be drained by a day that involves too much social interaction. Unlike extroverts, introverts get an energy boost in a place of reflection and solitude.

So which are you: introvert or extrovert? If you can’t wait to get home after a long day at work so you can go out with a group of friends, you’re a classic extrovert. If, however, you can’t wait to get home after a long day so you can sit in a quiet room, read a book, go for a long walk, or have a quiet dinner at home with a close friend or partner, you’re a classic introvert.

Second, it’s true that leaders typically exude charisma; and yes, charisma is more closely related to extroversion. But at times, an extrovert’s need to be the center of the attention, to dominate conversations, and to establish power and control over day-to-day situations interferes with effective people leadership. In fact, research suggests that extroverted leaders often have great difficulty leading teams of fellow extroverts, perhaps because both the leader and employees find themselves fighting over the spotlight.

But what about introverted leaders? Introverted leaders work well with other introverted employees because they share the same basic wiring: respect for reflection and solitude. Additionally, introverts often excel when leading extroverts, because introverts waste no energy vying for the limelight. They are very willing to give extroverts the attention they crave. Without a power struggle over dominance, introverted leaders have more energy to focus on results.

In fact, introverted leaders actually have an advantage over extroverted leaders. What is the goal of a leader? To get results, certainly. But in the process, the goal of the leader is to create more leaders. In Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, author David Rock points out that effective leaders know how to mentor, empower and develop others. How do the best people leaders do that? They ask questions, they listen, they reflect, and then they counsel. Listening and reflecting are traits more consistent with introverts, not extraverts who may tend to counsel before hearing the question.

Third, embrace that the world is full of introverted leaders. Introverts like Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, John Milton, Frederic Chopin, Steven Spielberg, Sir Isaac Newton, Andrew Jung, Steve Wozniak, and J.K. Rowling likely never lost sleep worrying about the “fatal flaw” of their own introversion. They would rather spend time in their heads instead of recharging at a noisy social function. So what? For introverts, social down-time is the seed of their genius. Celebrate your amazing uniqueness instead of lamenting that you aren’t just like other leaders.

Fourth, showcase your leadership potential by refining all aspects of your social skills. While it might be true that extroverts are more likely to be viewed as “leadership material,” research tells us that polished social skills are more predictive of success than raw extroversion. What does that mean in practical terms? Think of a successful extroverted leader. What does that person do in social situations? Likely, that person smiles and looks people in the eye. That person isn’t afraid to shake hands, maybe even touching someone’s shoulder as a display of warmth. That person keeps an open body posture, leaning slightly to the person who is talking. That person uses social phrases that fit the occasion, saying things like “thank you,” “excuse me,” “please,” “I beg your pardon,” etc. Watch someone who exudes social grace, and imitate that person.

Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you can’t practice—and excel in—exuding traits more consistent with extroverts. A 2003 study conducted by Wake Forest University has proven that introverts become happier and more internally energized when they practice traits more often associated with extroverts: talkativeness, assertiveness, adventurousness, and energy level. So if you’re an introvert, does that mean you should fake being an extrovert? No, it doesn’t mean that you should, it means only that you can. And if you do “fake it until you make it,” you reap the rewards of feeling happier and more energetic, the same rewards that extroverts feel when they are working a crowd.

How do I know that an introvert can lead just as well as an extrovert? Not to sound conceited, but I’ve been recognized more often for my leadership skills than for my introverted nature. But make no mistake, I’m an introvert. When I spend too much time in social settings, I get exhausted. I get worn out by having to be “on.” But I’m still a leader. I know how to give fellow introverts the space they need to reflect (something I call “noodling”), and I give extroverts the spotlight they need to feel valued. I develop and mentor others so that they become leaders. I am protective of the time that I require to spend inside my head, because it’s in those moments of solitude when I develop thoughts that become plans, and plans that become actions. I’ve practiced being comfortable in a variety of social settings. And when I’ve felt comfortable doing so, I’ve copied the traits of some very successful extroverted leaders.

Let me end by saying this: it’s much easier for an introvert to lead like an extrovert than it is for an extrovert to lead like an introvert. Don’t feel the need to become someone or something that you’re not. You can be an outstanding leader and an introvert. Use your areas of greatest strengths to build your overall leadership competence. At the same time, if you see successful leadership traits in your extroverted colleagues, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself if it means reaping greater leadership rewards.


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