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I’m a Leader… I Want to be Alone
By James Grinnell

As a college professor, I make my living standing in front of people. I’m not going to lie, much of what I do as a professor is old hat. After delivering the same lectures three times a day, year after year, there’s rarely an instance in which what I say hasn’t been uttered a hundred times before. Yet even after more than a decade in my profession, I still get nervous before I step in front of the class. I still feel awkward as I lead a discussion. And at the end of the day, I still feel compelled to grab some alone time after being submerged in social relations all day. I am, like nearly a third of all Americans, a hardcore introvert.

Being an introvert in a decidedly public-facing profession got me thinking about other occupations where introverts might dwell effectively, albeit uncomfortably. Obviously with so many introverts out there, they can’t all be hiding out as librarians, engineers, museum curators, or in back-office bureaucratic positions. As a leadership scholar, I immediately gravitated to whether introverts could make effective leaders.

Before delving into the relationship between introversion and leadership, it is helpful to understand what introversion is. The introversion-extroversion continuum is one of the primary personality traits discussed in contemporary psychology (it’s one of the Big Five Personality Traits identified by psychologists). Introverts are characterized by an inward orientation. They tend to be highly self-reflective and self-aware, thoughtful and deliberate in their actions, reserved in their display of emotions, and inclined to learn through observation. In other words, introverts score high on the dimensions of emotional intelligence (see my previous article Why Personal Change is Harder Than You Might Think for a brief overview of emotional intelligence).

Can individuals who shun the spotlight, derive solace from their privacy, and live an inner-directed life succeed in a role where these propensities seem completely alien? Doug Conant, retired CEO of Campbell Soup Company, knows that they can. Conant described his own experience being an introvert CEO of a Fortune 500 company: “As an introvert, I enjoy being by myself. I sometimes feel drained if I have to be in front of large groups of people I don’t know. After I’ve been in a social situation — including a long day at work — I need quiet time to be alone with my thoughts and recharge. But as a CEO of a company with more than 18,000 employees, I’ve found myself particularly challenged because so much of my work requires me to be “out there” in front of others.”

Conant is not a rare exception. Estimates suggest that anywhere between fifteen to forty percent of all top executives are introverted. It’s not through sheer numbers that these people make it into leadership positions. To the contrary, emerging research is showing that introverts may actually be better suited to leadership than their extroverted peers. As psychologist Susan Whitbourne asserts in a Psychology Today article: “It turns out that your best choice of a leader is more likely to be the quiet and reticent person who takes a back seat in public discussions. Researchers are finding that introverts make better leaders than extroverts for one simple reason: they’re more likely to listen and pay attention to what other people are saying. It’s the introverts you want to choose as leaders, not the extroverts.” Some of the specific advantages of introverted leaders include:

  • They are great listeners who are adept at weaving the input of the team into the final decision.
  • They think before talking, which invites others to interject their input.
  • They are more inclined to deal with matters in a substantive as opposed to superfluous manner.
  • They tend to be more creative, focused, and well prepared.
  • They are less inclined to make themselves the focal point of the leader-follower relationship, thus they are natural adherents to the servant leadership philosophy.

Introverted leaders like Conant do, however, face a number of challenges that are exacerbated by their introversion. In her book The Introverted Leader, Jennifer Kahnweiler discusses four primary challenges introverted leaders face. First, introverts are highly susceptible to stress. Because they are more inwardly focused, less apt to display emotions, and tend to focus intensely on challenges, introverts suffer the physical and emotional consequences of stress much more than do extroverts. And, in situations where introverts are saturated by social exposure, they will likely experience people exhaustion and will need to spend alone time to recharge and regroup. Second, introverts can be the subjects of negative perceptions. The reserved nature of introverts is often mistaken as aloof, rude, dismissive, or distant. And because the introvert is rarely at the forefront of group discussion, they may be viewed as having nothing of value to add (i.e., less intelligent) or as weak and uncommitted. Third, introverts sometimes inadvertently engage in behaviors that can be career derailers. Many times introverts miss out on career advancement opportunities because they tend to undersell their accomplishments. They also hurt their advancement potential because they shy away from building political relationships and capital. Lastly, introverts generally operate under a cloak of invisibility. As managers, they frequently come up short on attracting resources compared to their extroverted counterparts. When introverts express their opinions, they are often dismissed, their ideas are drowned out by more vociferous members, or the more vocal, active participants might co-opt the introvert’s ideas.

Doug Conant offers advice to his introverted brethren. First, introverts need to create “thinking time” apart from the flux of social interaction. Doing so gives the introvert the time to delve into decisions without being distracted by external/social stimuli. Second, introverts need to proactively deal with their reputation for aloofness. Conant elaborates on the liberating power of disclosing one’s introversion: “One of the best ways I’ve found to help people overcome their discomfort around my behavior is to simply declare myself. I tell them, ‘If you see me looking aloof, please understand that I’m shy, and I need you to call me out.’ By declaring myself in this way, I’ve found other people quickly, and compassionately, adapt to my style.” Finally, introverted leaders benefit when they build familiarity into novel situations. This might involve becoming well prepared to give a new presentation or reconnoitering a new venue ahead of time. Conant concludes with the following observations about introverts: “In the end, we introverts never really change our stripes, though we too often put ourselves through painful contortions in attempting to adapt to other people’s styles. Ultimately, what helps us and others most is to accept who we are, ask people we meet to understand our quirks, and to develop a set successful adaptive behaviors.”

James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management. You can read more from James on his blog.

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