Introversion and Successful Leadership: A Paradox?

By Monica Affleck

Do we instinctively still believe that the loudest person is the rightest and that an introverted person cannot effectively lead others?

When we think about successful leaders, many of us may have a picture in our mind of the charismatic, assertive person—the one who is outgoing, has a plan, always has a story to tell, and who speaks up in every meeting (often to the point of not leaving much room for others to contribute).

Introverted Leaders: The Missed Opportunity
Interestingly, research shows that one-third to half of the US population is made up of introverts and numbers in Canada are probably similar. So, chances are that a significant number of people in our workplaces are introverts.

Today, we also know that people have both extroversion and introversion characteristics, and we all find ourselves somewhere on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. In fact, to quote Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst: “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert—such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.”

Unfortunately, as we all have probably experienced—especially if we are introverted— widespread misconceptions about introversion and extroversion still exist, and they can lead to great misunderstandings and unfair stereotyping.

Understanding the Types
The Introvert: What does introversion actually mean? Being introverted does not mean being shy, timid or reclusive. It is not about a lack of social skills or being a bad team player; it is about where people find their energy. Introverts enjoy spending time alone—that is where they re-generate and re-energize. Many introverts are excellent public speakers and effective networkers; however, after being in a social setting, they will seek solitude to fill their gas tank.

The Extrovert: Extroverts recharge their energy by spending time with others, and they get energized by social gatherings and a stimulating environment. They love meeting new people and thrive on the stimulation that comes from being among others – that is where their energy source is.

The Ambivert: An ambivert is someone who falls in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum and can tap into the strengths of both styles and their traits.

Introverted Leaders Have Changed the World
So, in a business world that emphasizes teamwork, group brainstorming and speaking out, introverts are often overlooked for promotions or leadership positions. However, who says introverts can’t be successful leaders? Here is a list of some of today’s most influential and well-recognized leaders who are considered introverts:

  • Bill Gates—Founder of Microsoft
  • Barack Obama—past-President of the United States
  • Maryssa Mayer—CEO of Yahoo
  • Mark Zuckerberg—CEO of Facebook
  • Elon Musk—CEO of Tesla

So, if you are an introverted leader, take heart—you are in excellent company!

Strengths of the Introverted Leader
If we truly believe that leadership skills can be learned and that the role of leaders is to inspire people and guide organizations towards the future, we need to recognize that introverted individuals make great leaders. Some of their key strengths are:

  • Listening: Introverts are often comfortable with silence and mindful about creating space for others to share their ideas. They ask for and consider input from others which creates an open environment that encourages collaboration and creative problem solving.
  • Empathy: How well we can relate to someone else’s experience and feelings, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Introverts are generally more introspective and observant which makes them more aware of what is going on around them, and they can pick up the emotions of others. Being empathetic shows that we care. It builds trust and is key to creating effective relationships with those we lead.
  • Introspection: Being self-reflective is a key practice of effective leadership and another significant strength of introverts. How well we know ourselves builds the foundation of being an authentic, transparent and credible leader. Through knowing what matters deeply to us—and leading in ways that are consistent with our values and beliefs—we earn the trust of those we lead.
  • Creativity: Often, great innovations and creative ideas surface out of solitude and deep thinking away from the energy and noise of others. Solitude is the place where introverts get their energy and inspiration. Creativity and innovation is at the heart of today’s quick-changing business environment.

What you can do to capitalize on the strengths Introverts bring to your organization?

Review Your Business Processes
You may find that many of your processes are geared towards favouring those with extrovert traits. Consider the introverts in your organization:

Provide them with space and time to think. Introverts may not be ready to contribute their ideas during a brainstorming session. Give them the opportunity to think and they will offer creative and thoughtful input.

Consider different ways of participation. Introverts are often great writers and much prefer providing their ideas that way instead of on the spot in a group activity.

Listen to introverts. Specifically elicit their feedback. You don’t want to miss out on valuable insights that would otherwise have gone unheard.

Appreciate diversity without judgement and recognize that everyone brings different skills and expertise to work – that is what makes working together so rich and leads to more creative problem solving and better solutions.

Don’t assume. Get to know people and find out their strengths and their preferred ways of leveraging their talents in the organization. Review your recruitment processes for attracting and selecting leaders:

  • Is your recruitment advertising (images and text) inviting to introverts?
  • Is your selection process biased against introverts? Think about the type of interview questions you ask, the selection criteria you choose and how the recruitment process is structured.

Make your organization a place where introverts and extroverts can flourish – where they can be at their best and contribute their minds, hearts and hands to achieve their goals and make the company successful.

More Information
Do you know your personality style? Take this test or this test.

Are you an introverted leader or want to know more about appreciating the quieter side?
Read Susan Cain’s book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Watch Susan Cain’s TedTalk “The Power of Introverts”

As a Soutlterra HR and leadership development consultant with over 15 years experience providing strategic and hands-on HR services to organizations in a variety of industries, Monica Affleck, CPHR specializes in: employee engagement, performance management, leadership development, recruitment and retention, coaching and diversity and inclusion. With a Master of Arts in Business Leadership, she is an instructor in the Continuing Education Department at the University of the Fraser Valley, teaching courses in the Human Resource Management and Management Skills for Supervisors programs.

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