Exploring introverts’ ability to lead
Many people are familiar with an iconic scene from Dead Poets Society, in which a classroom full of boys watches in astonishment as their English teacher springs from his chair and climbs atop his desk.
The students chuckle, not knowing how to respond. Full of energy and charisma, the teacher then makes each student stand on the desk to get a new perspective.
Starring Robin Williams as John Keating, an English teacher that shakes up an all boys prep school with his boisterous teaching methods, the 1989 film contains examples of classic extroverted leadership.
Keating leads rowdy class discussions, pushes quieter students to speak and makes the class participate in a variety of spirited activities.
Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society is an example of an extroverted leader.
While some might lead in the same energetic fashion as Keating, others wouldn’t. These two types of people are known as “extroverts” and “introverts” respectively, and both lead in very different ways. According to Psychology Today, about 50 to 74 percent of the population are extroverts.
“Extroverts get their energy from being with people,” said Dr. Christina Kaiser, a professor of business and economics at Bethel University. “An extrovert can be in front of people; they get energy from talking to large groups. They’re able to get people really excited and fired up and get energy from that.”
Introverts, however, recharge by spending time alone or in small groups of people. Introverts prefer one on one conversations and having one or two close friends to large group interactions. Though introverts’ tendency to prefer solitude and quiet may come off as shyness, this is not necessarily the case.
What it means to lead
Regardless of personality, individuals require different traits or abilities in order to lead well. Common leadership tasks include making decisions, planning, motivating others, consultation, listening, organizational tasks and public speaking. Kaiser pointed out what she believes to be qualities of a good leader, regardless of personality type.
“I think humility [is an important quality],” she said. “The ability to, when things go right, not take the credit yourself, but pointing to the people you lead. Being able to, when things get tough, step in and say ‘We’re going to do this together and we are going to work together.’ Being able to unite people is a really important piece. You don’t necessarily have to be an extrovert to do those types of things; those are actually types of things that introverts tend to be pretty good at.”
While there are many examples of extroverted leaders in American culture, many well known individuals are introverts.
“There are a lot of really successful leaders in our culture who consider themselves to be introverts,” Kaiser said. “Bill Gates considers himself an introvert, Mark Zuckerberg, former President Obama. There are a number of leaders in our society that have become very successful and have climbed to the top of their industry, and consider themselves introverted leaders.”
The bias toward extroverts
Susan Cain, an American writer and speaker who started a movement called the “Quiet Revolution,” is an advocate for introverted leadership. During her TED talk in 2012, Cain pointed out that often, today’s society shows a bias toward extroverts.
“Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation,” said Cain.
Businesses stress “team building” open floor plan environments that offer little solitude, while schools encourage students to work in groups, both situations in which quiet reflection is limited and extroverts are more likely to thrive.
Kiersten Case, a human resources expert that has worked with companies like Target and Cargill and is also a Myers Briggs specialist, said, “ESTJ is the dominant personality type in America, so that’s also predominant in the workforce. When you think about that from an American standpoint, we actually prioritize extroverts as people. We like them as Americans, we think that that is the American personality. So when you start to have introverts, there’s this negative bias towards [them]. ‘They’re quiet, they’re unfriendly, they don’t like me.’”
According to a 2018 study by Introvert Insights, a monthly publication on introversion based in Moorhead, MN, today’s “culture regards being able to work well on a team far more highly than it regards being able to work well alone. Which means that wanting to work alone is often seen as A) bad, B) inferior to working with others and therefore C) something to be fixed, not respected and leveraged.”
Additionally, it is often extroverts, who may draw more attention to themselves or appear more confident, that end up in leadership roles.
“I think it’s been part of our culture,” said Kaiser. “A lot of times people who are extroverted tend to be charismatic. Charismatic leaders can get people fired up and get people excited and really play on their emotions. I think people see that as being a better leader!”
Leadership teacher Collin Quinn agreed that often it is extroverts who are looked to as leaders.
“I think that we’ve accepted the assumption that someone who stands up in front of a large group of people and is extroverted is what a leader looks like,” said Quinn. “That can be leadership and there’s certainly a place for that, but I don’t think that’s how people lead most of the time.”
Leading as an introvert
Introverted leaders often excel at tasks such as listening, thinking deeply, generating ideas and making decisions. Case described the difference between the way introverts and extroverts lead.
“Introverted [leaders] tend to keep more inside and process their speaking internally,” said Case. “They think then say, whereas extroverts say which makes them think. From a happiness standpoint, there’s actually a lot more satisfaction reported with introverted leaders because what they say to an employee tends to be more carefully measured and well thought out, so feedback tends to be clear, concise, understandable.”
However, extroverted leaders are often skilled at public speaking, socializing with others, and leading team meetings.
“Extroverted managers are more likely to talk about their employees,” said Case. “What that can lead to is extra visibility for leadership. People who have an extroverted manager tend to feel like that manager is talking about them and advocating for them.”
Kaiser, who considers herself to be an introvert, explains how the way she leads may be different from that of an extrovert, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse.
“In order to recharge and get that energy, I really need to take time to be alone, read a book, reflect, just have that space and time where I’m not in the midst of it,” she said.
“To be an effective introverted leader, at least for me, I really have to make sure that I balance my time and allow for those opportunities to get away and disconnect in order to bring my best leadership skills to the situation. Extroverted leaders get that energy from being with people, so they can endure longer, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a better leader.”
Though introverts do have a need to recharge through solitude, they bring some valued qualities to leadership roles, such as the ability to pause, think deeply and generate new ideas.
In her book, Quiet, Cain writes, “Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions – from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer – came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.”
Being a leader
While distinctions can be drawn between the way introverts lead and the way extroverts lead, everyone will have the opportunity to take charge at some point in their life.
“It’s important for everyone to find their voice, and then also be willing to stretch themselves, challenge themselves to grow as leaders,” said Quinn.
“Leadership is not a destination, it’s a process, and I think that it’s something we all can continue to grow and learn [through]. If you want to understand more about leadership I think it’s really important to spend time with people that you look up to.”