I still remember the day my former boss yelled at me. It was about 20 years ago on a beautiful summer day and I was proud to be the only salesperson that day to sell anything. My boss, the owner of the business, had a different view. When he learned of the “deal” my supervisor had helped me cook up for our new customer, he flew off the handle in a rage of fury, apparently concerned that he was giving product away needlessly. As I stood before him taking a tongue-lashing and being called names that I didn’t know even existed, it became eerily clear to me that introverts make better leaders.
We’ve seen numerous studies and reports on the strengths of the strong, silent type in recent years with the most relevant that I’ve come across being that of Deniz Ones and Stephan Dilchert from 2009 in which they suggest that although 50% of the population is extroverted, nearly 96% of all managers and executives display extroverted personalities. What the study suggests is that every leader needs to demonstrate extroverted characteristics, but what it doesn’t suggest is that in fact they have to be extroverts to do so. And that’s a good thing.
From my experience in leading others, as well as in my observations from coaching and advising business leaders, there is a balance to strike between introverted and extroverted personalities if you are to earn the respect, admiration and support of your people.
Too introverted, for example, and employees will tend to walk all over you, deeming your confidence as a leader to be underwhelming at best. Lack of confidence in turn diminishes trust and inhibits communication. If we look at the opposite extreme of a leader being too extroverted, similar issues emerge. Too much talking and thrusting one’s own agenda upon employees with little patience or time to listen can also hamper communications, diminishing confidence in the leader’s true abilities and eroding trust. Just ask my former boss, if you can get a word in that is.
It would seem that having either an extremely introverted or extroverted personality will in fact hinder a leader’s ability to hold trust and communicate effectively, two of the cornerstones of being a strong leader.
Fortunately we can adjust our personalities to suit different situations if we want to. Introverted leaders for example can train themselves to be extroverted when necessary, speaking up in meetings, standing ground on their ideas or views with peers, or disciplining an employee if necessary. An extroverted leader can do the same, shifting his or her personality to match specific situations.
The question is which group finds this transition easier?
Is it easier for an introvert to amp up their presence and communication than it is for an extroverted leader to tone down their overt personality? In my experience, it is. As leaders, introverts often recognize that part of their personality must be extroverted if they are to be effective, whereas extroverts are less aware of this need.
This isn’t to say extroverted leaders who are fully aware of their personality and behavior can’t make this shift, but often they aren’t coached or advised to do so. In my study of leadership behavior, it’s more common that a highly introverted leader (if they are a leader at all) would be advised to speak up, than it is that an extroverted leader is told to tone it down. Can you imagine the discussion? “Joe, when it comes to running meetings you need to tone your volume, enthusiasm and personality down a bit. Don’t be so darn outgoing and extroverted.”
I’ve found that it’s more common that introverts who have become leaders, have achieved their status on account of their own self-realization, as well as their dedication to continue practicing extroverted characteristics when necessary. This gives introverts an edge. They already know what they have to do to be an effective leader, and most are either working on it continuously or have instead chosen to step down from their leadership role.
For those extroverted leaders out there, what to do? Well to start let me suggest that you might take some cues from your introverted counterparts.
Listen first. Don’t think you have to lead every conversation or have a comeback for every response. That is simply not true. By practicing a “listen first” approach in leadership, you’ll give yourself a chance to think through your responses before giving them and of course avoid the dreaded “foot in mouth” syndrome.
Ask Questions. The second most important thing you can do as a leader is to ask questions. Understand what others are thinking and where their ideas are coming from. In doing so, there is a greater chance you’ll offend fewer people, and you just might tap into an idea that you hadn’t realized existed.
For every leader, two of the most powerful tools in your arsenal are the ability to listen first and to ask more questions. Introverts just happen to have the unfair advantage of having these tools come more naturally.
hawn Casemore, president and founder of Casemore and Co, Inc., is a consultant, speaker and author of Operational Empowerment: Collaborate, Innovate, and Engage to Beat the Competition, published by McGraw-Hill.