Introverted Leaders: Gifts and Cautions

A previous post about extraverted leaders explores some of theory behind Extraversion and Introversion. In brief, an extravert prefers to orient attention on the outside world ?€“ people and activity. An introvert prefers an orientation of the inner world ?€“ reflection and thoughts. In both cases, this is where people with that preference get energy. For instance, an extravert may feel energized after a party; an introvert may feel drained.

A minority of Americans are introverted ?€“ 40%. According to Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D., a workplace and careers expert and author of “The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength“, that is also the percentage of introverts that we would expect in positions of leadership in organizations.

It is surprising to some, even the introverts themselves, that introverts can be leaders. Introverts bring great gifts to the world of leadership. I`ve also observed some behaviors in introverted leaders I`ve worked with that they should take notice of, which may detract from effective leadership as well.

Gifts of the introverted leader:

  • Provides well thought out strategies and decisions
  • Exhibits calm in the midst of calamity
  • Focuses on what matters to them with great determination
  • Enjoys listening to others

You can see that these strengths can be of great value in our organizations and communities. However, the introverts themselves often feel as if they don`t fit in; with some justification, since our organizations and communities tend to be largely extraverted by nature.

There may be some traits in introverted leaders that bear caution. If you identify with being an introverted leader, you might want to take notice of some of the cautions below, as they are the traits that can possibly cause trouble for you. I`ve included ways to mitigate the behaviors as well.

Introverted leaders:

Can be underestimated when they don`t allow their voice to be heard: Your opinions and thoughts are important to the conversation. If you are unable to give them the proper thought in the moment, request permission to offer your opinions later, after you`ve had time to deliberate and think them through.

May not recognize the importance of connections and relationships in the workplace: Recognize that leadership is fundamentally relational, and if you aren`t out being seen and heard, your followers will make up their own theories and stories about you and what you are thinking. Schedule the time to get out and be seen, and build the relationships you need to grow a network of support.

Might not provide the detail behind their decisions: Because introverts do so much of their thinking by reflecting rather than speaking, there can be a perception that the decisions they make aren`t as well thought out as they really are. Your followers need to know what goes into your thought process. You might consider journaling the detail of your thoughts and practice saying them so that the people who need to hear them can understand the entire picture.

Can become stressed when they don`t pay attention to their need for time alone: Pay attention to the physical symptoms that indicate that you are draining your energy and not recharging your batteries. Finding strategies that help you to maintain this balance are important to avoid stress-induced illness. For many introverts, actually scheduling solitary activities or hobbies into their calendar may be helpful.

Introverted leaders, I wish you the joy of knowing the strengths you bring to your organization and community as well as the full understanding of the cautions that may be barriers to fully using them.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

19 comments on “Introverted Leaders: Gifts and Cautions

  1. Hi MJ – I liked both parts on this very important topic of introvert and extraverted leaders.

    In my experience, People who ascend to leadership positions based on their personal excellence in a particular subject tend to remain introvert till the time they start understanding the importance of connections and relationships in leadership – and exhibit traits you have mentioned. It takes them, some time to come out of the subject-specifics and assume broader responsibilities that come with being a leader.

  2. This is me! MJ, can you clarify what type of introversion you are talking about? As you know, introvert in MBTI is different than introvert in the big five. Your description leads me to believe that you are talking in terms of MBTI, which I like. I’m not sure I agree that introverts in this sense don’t speak a lot. I am very introverted – have to be alone to charge my batteries, very reflective – but in work situations I am not “shy” to share my opinion. In fact, one of the things I value most at work is having a voice – and I express my voice without reservation. Thanks! Bret

  3. Hi Tanmay, thanks for adding your experience. I have also noticed this in some introverts.

    Hi Bret, yes, it is you! The type of introversion I refer to is Jungian, as interpreted by Katherine Briggs and Isabelle Briggs Myers, whose work was foundational to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). And you are correct. Introversion does not necessarily mean shyness.

    I find introverts may need thinking time before expressing their thoughts. So its usually not a matter of NOT speaking so much as needing the time to reflect before rendering an opinion. Time, in our fast-paced business worlds is at a premium, so sometimes, lacking the time to process, introverts just don’t get to be heard.

    The other thing I sometimes see is that for some introverts, thinking may mimic the act of speaking. They may have thought through a decision in great detail, but may neglect to let their followers in on the details that are important for others to hear.

    I tried, as best I could, to use “may” and “can” as tentative qualfiers in my writing here, knowing that some of the behavors don’t apply to some introverts.

  4. Here’s another observation to stir the pot a bit. Whether you are or are not introverted, it never comes down to that simple dimension. There are other things at work, including the culture you were raised in, and learned behavior.

  5. Wally, absolutely! we are very complex beings, and there is so much more at play in our personalities than MBTI preferences. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Thanks for this post. As Bret said, this is me too! When I saw your previous post about extraverted leaders I was slightly saddened…here was more written about those “other people” not like me and what makes them good leaders. Thanks for providing equal time for us!

    Everything that you said is dead on. I can see myself in everything that you wrote. For me the biggest thing that I have done is to be able to recognize when I’m getting stressed because I need to go off by myself. As I’ve learned more about myself in this regard I realize that I need this time by myself or I can’t handle the over stimulation.

  7. Hi Tom,

    You’ve hit on a very good point – there is an assumption that extraverts make the best leaders. This is categorically untrue. The gifts introverts bring to leadership are to be admired, and some of the best leaders are introverts (Bill Gates). For that reason, I’ve wanted to write this post on introverted leaders for quite a while.

    I just purchased the book I mentioned in the post, and am just starting with it, but am quite engrossed; so far, quite well written! You might find additional tips on the issue of balancing your energy, as well as ohers, there.

  8. Hi Mary Jo,

    Thanks for writing these two pieces on the extroverted and introverted leaders. As those above have commented, it’s nice to finally see some recognition of the benefits introverts bring to a leadership role. I know a few who have told me that they hate the fact that they aren’t more extroverted in how they manage their team, in large part because they keep reading about that behaviour-typeset being the key to successful leadership.

    I think by shedding light on both of these personality types, you remind everyone of a simple truth – that to succeed, you need to be true to who you are and focus on the strengths you bring to the team or the project. After all, the more comfortable we are with our true selves, the more confident we become in our abilities, including the ability to lead others and succeed.

    Thanks again Mary Jo for another insightful read.

  9. Nice job with both extroverts and introverts. I’m going to take issue with one point in this post – that “introverted leaders may not recognize the importance of connections and relationships in the workplace.” If we are starting with the assumption that the people we are talking about are leaders then I would argue that, by definition, they recognize the importance of connections and relationships. They may not find establishing them easy and they may leave an event feeling washed out, but they were there, they did it. I think the introverts who have become leaders have done so by learning ways to deal with their inherent difficulty in relationship building.

  10. Hi Mary Jo,

    Nice post. “Prefer” is the right word. Introverts prefer to focus on the inner world of ideas and experiences. Many people think that the focus can’t be changed. Wrong. Introverts can and do change their focus depending on the situation.

    Leaders who prefer extroversion would benefit from considering the following question: What simple things can I do to engage the focus and concentration that introverts bring to problem solving?

    The first thing an extrovert can do is to ask introverts that question and LISTEN to their answers. I’m an extrovert. I’ve listened, experimented, and refined many ways of working better with introverts.

    For instance, in meetings and conference calls, I always go around the table or virtual table person by person asking for comments. I let everyone know that I will always go around the table at least twice. Why? So people who haven’t fully processed the questions have an opportunity to contribute in the next round.

    Leaders create an environment where people with different preferences have an opportunity to bring their energy, focus, and concentration to the solution of problems.

  11. Tanveer, thanks for your comments. You have truly distilled an important point here – be true to who you are, find ways to work with your strengths, and you can be a great leader.

    Paul, you certainly have a great point that I totally agree with. I once wrote piece called “Deserving the Title of Leader”, indicating something similar. We should reserve the word “leader” for those who can create healthy, strong relationships and connections. It is so easy to get into the habit of calling anyone with even an “appearance” of followers a leader, when the term should be used carefully.

    Thanks for your great observation.

  12. Mary Jo– Great overview and refresher on introverted and extroverted leaders. You offer great points on both types, and will be helpful when trying to analyize my superiors! Also, good insight on what kind of leader I am, and how I react to situations and people, etc. Do you think introverts and extroverts compliment eachother, or do you think introverts work better with other introverts and extroverts are better with other extroverts?

  13. Hi Cecelia, and great question. I think organizations make their best decisions and to their best work when they include and appreciate all types. What’s been your experience?

  14. I agree that it takes both kinds in the workplace; they both have their strengths, and maybe the other makes up for their weaknesses. As an extrovert, I tend to “jump the gun,” so to speak, when I am making decisions, so I appreciate the introverted types I work with who can slow me down and look at the big picture. I was wondering in our personal lives, also, do introverts tend to get along with other introverts, and the same with extroverts.

  15. Mary Jo–What an interesting topic!

    Even though I am an extroverted leader, I believe that introverted leaders can be some of the best and most effective leaders. My current boss is an introvert and I think that, by and large, he would fit into the great leader category.

    The success of an introverted leader will, I believe, be dependent on two very important things; the leader having:
    1) staff members that are experienced and self-directed, have an internal locus of control and don`t need a lot of ?€?atta boys”
    2) the ability to “put on a show” for the outside world?€”meaning having the ability to step out of their comfort zone and actively engage bosses, peers and lower level employees.

    Thanks for the interesting topic!

  16. Cecelia, thanks for your added opinion. Only you can answer the question on friendships for yourself. My own friends are a mixture of introverts and extraverts. The fact that they are one or the other preference only serves for me to value them as they are; it has no effect on whether I choose to be their friend. (p.s. my husband is an introvert too, which had no bearing on my decision to marry him :-)).

    Sharon,

    Interesting ideas of what is needed for an introverted leader to be successful. You’ve provided food for thought, thanks!

  17. Great post! As an introvert myself, it was fascinating to read some of the strengths that we have as leaders. I find it interesting that most people have the idea that leaders are extroverts. However, I seem to be surrounded with mostly introverted leaders. Perhaps it’s because of the field I work in (engineering). I’m glad my type is compatible with what I am exposed to. I’ve learned many great things from them. I definitely agree that introverted leaders are some of the best strategists. They seem to lead mainly with their mind. A bit off topic, but most introverted leaders remind me of Professor X from X-Men.

  18. Hello Mary Jo and all the other responders here. Thanks to Google Alerts I have been following this dialogue and agree with almost everything that has been expressed.

    Some folks might be interested in the Forbes piece I wrote recently http://www.forbes.com/2009/11/30/introverts-good-leaders-leadership-managing-personality.html – the comments there are also quite rich.

    I am increasingly encouraged by the willingness of both side of the house (E’s and I’s) to better understand each other. Keep up the great work, Mary Jo.

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