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The value of introverted leadership

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Our now traditional view of leadership seems to paint a picture of heroic and charismatic traits, being at the front of the charge and fighting dragons. There are definitely some stock figures that come to mind – not very representative of an introverted personality? Or is it?

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Google ‘successful introverts’ and you quickly get to a list of highly successful (and extremely wealthy) entrepreneurs, largely working in the tech industry. The Cambridge Dictionary defines an introvert as ‘someone who is shy, quiet and prefers to spend time alone rather than often being with other people’, perpetuating the myth that introverts are shy. Bill Gates might be an introvert, but he’s never afraid to speak out.

In psychology, extraversion and introversion were first labelled by Carl Jung (1921) and each has been incorporated into many models of personality since, including the popular Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Each is typically viewed as an ‘all or nothing’ trait; either you are an extrovert or an introvert. Jung actually intended that these traits be viewed from a different perspective, that in fact everyone has an extroverted and introverted side, but that one may be more dominant than the other. If we view these traits as a continuum, then shouldn’t everyone display differing preferences at some point in their leadership behaviour – most of us will share some extrovert and some introvert traits.

If this is the case, then our traditional view of leadership has been quite biased. Maybe being more reflective and taking more time over decisions is not always viewed as a leadership strength? Both US and UK culture appear to put a higher value on extraversion from very early on in life – my colleague’s introvert son’s lack of contribution in lively class debates was highlighted in his end of term report cards all the way through primary school.

An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak – and, provided they can grab the air-time, are likely to make considered and well-thought-out contributions. As Susan Cain wryly observes, the best talkers don’t necessarily have the best ideas. By the time you get to be CEO, your natural preference to listen well, reflect on issues more deeply and manage uncertainty are going to serve you well, and you’re going to need to be comfortable working alone.

Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader says ‘Thoughtful, quiet leaders don’t try to dominate the conversation or direction of a team. They are engaged listeners and set the stage for people to step into their own strengths. They also are astute observers and known for synthesizing and summarizing key points in meetings’. The challenge for introverted leaders, she adds, is to avoid getting too comfortable in solitude and to work on building key relationships.

So as an introverted leader what can you do to build on your strengths and achieve appropriate recognition?

  • If you’re in charge, you can hold smaller meetings.
  • Talk to people beforehand – prime a close colleague to invite your contribution – or follow up on meetings with an email when you’ve had time to think themes through thoroughly.
  • Learn to be comfortable flagging your introversion – ‘I need a moment to reflect on that further’.
  • And most importantly, build in time to reflect and recharge.

Food for thought:

Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength Dr Laurie Helgoe

The Power of Quiet – Susan Cain      https://www.quietrev.com

The Introverted Leader; Building on your Quiet Strength – Jennifer Kahnweiler

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