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The Case for Introverted Leaders

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The Thinker by Rodin A quick search for introvert on Thesaurus.com retrieves synonyms such as brooder, egoist, loner, self-observer, solitary and wallflower, while the synonyms for extrovert include character, gregarious person, life of the party, show-off and showboat. Neither of these references paint a completely positive or accurate picture of either preference but perpetuate the overall misconceptions floating around about introverts and extroverts.

This explains the question I have been asked on several occasions: “Can introverts make great leaders?”

My response? “Yes!” Introverts and extroverts can both make great leaders, but for introverts, leading others requires more effort towards adapting their natural style.

In a recent poll of executives who are our clients, approximately 40 percent described themselves as introverts. Are you an introvert? If you can answer “yes” to the majority of the statements listed below, there is a good chance you are an introvert:

  • You believe that if everyone just did their job, there would be less need to communicate and there would be no need to go to a team building session.
  • You would prefer to communicate by email rather than by phone or in person.
  • You work hard to minimize the amount of time you have to spend at social events.
  • You are more comfortable being with people you know well, rather than in situations where you have to hold a conversation with people you do not know.
  • You actually re-charge your batteries by spending time by yourself.
  • You believe that since you do not need a lot of praise and recognition, others should be content and not look for acknowledgement for just doing their jobs.
  • You do not like to speak your mind until you have listened to all of the options, both pro and con, and then have the opportunity to prepare a well thought out response.
  • You prefer to dig deep into an issue rather than focus on someone else’s vision. To you, depth is more important than breadth.
  • You prefer to work with people and in situations where people are calm, objective and there is an absence of emotion.
  • You really enjoy calmly analyzing challenges and solving problems that are troubling to others.

If you are a leader who is an introvert, you are in good company. Great leaders who have classified themselves as introverts include: Bill Gates; Warren Buffet; Douglas Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup; Mahatma Gandhi; and Abraham Lincoln.

For many people, the stereotype that you need to be an extrovert to be a great leader still exists. In a study published by USA Today, 65 percent of executives stated that they perceive introversion as a barrier to leadership, and only 6 percent said they believe introverts make better leaders. The University of Notre Dame, in an analysis of approximately 70 leadership studies, found that extroversion was a major predictor of a person’s leadership potential. Most likely, these findings are because extroverts, through their comfort of networking and their ability to build relationships, are more likely to be noticed and considered for promotions.

The reality is that there are about an equal number of introverts and extroverts at the executive level of the organization who are great leaders. What makes both extroverts and introverts great leaders is the ability to adapt their style—even when it is uncomfortable for them to do so—when that is what is needed for their people or for the situation within which they are leading.

Although remaining introverts to the core, successful introverts learn to adapt when certain behaviors are necessary for influential leadership. If you are an introvert, the following six tips will help you in becoming an even more successful leader:

  1. Get out of your comfort zone. If you are most comfortable being in your office responding to email, then set a goal that three times a day you are going to make the rounds. Ask each person you talk to the following questions: How are you doing? What are you working on? and What support do you need from me? The best part about asking these three questions is all you need to do is listen, possibly take notes, and take action if needed.

  2. Connect with others. Introverts have the habit of walking by others and just hoping that no one will try to connect with them. Stop it! Start walking by others and greeting them with, “Good morning,” or ask how their day is going. When you ask a question, it is then important to stop and listen to the response. This reminds me what our 91-year-old dad has preached since we were kids, “People like you so much better when they do the talking.”

  3. Participate in meetings. Don’t just sit in meetings looking at others (and thinking in your own mind how stupid people can be and what a complete waste of your time this really is). Get involved. Ask questions. Acknowledge people’s contributions. Ask what you can do to help the team or to help others be even more successful.

  4. Acknowledge other people’s emotions. Recognize when people tell you what they are looking for, they most likely are feeling some emotion, whether it is pride or frustration. If someone is telling you about their family or children, acknowledge the emotion by saying something like, “You have to be really proud of what John has accomplished in sports.”

  5. Prepare in advance. If you are going into a public setting, have your presentation/questions prepared in advance. As an introvert, the more prepared you are, the more confident you will be.

  6. Honor people’s need to be valued and appreciated. While introverts do not have a high need to be valued and recognized, most people do, whether it is at home or at work. Don’t be like the man whose wife said, “You never tell me you love me,” to which he responded, “I did on the day we were married. If anything changes, I will let you know.” Set a goal to let three to five people know each day that you appreciate their contributions, recognize their success and are grateful that they are involved in your life.

Introvert or extrovert, your preference doesn’t determine your leadership ability. What makes you a great leader is the flexibility to adapt your behavior so that you can bring out the best in others and connect with your team members in such a way that they are motivated to follow you.

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