Monday, October 13, 2014

Why Introverts Make Great Leaders

I read an article this morning titled "Why Introverts Make Great Leaders," and it struck me how far we have come in America in promoting the idea that extroverts are the only ones who can (and should) be leaders. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain labels this the "Extrovert Ideal" (p. 4). As she puts it: 

We live in a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal--the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups...Introversion--along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness--is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology... (p. 4)
Yet despite this "Extroverted Ideal" that Cain talks about, the article mentioned above by Jessica Stillman argues that introverts can excel at leadership in seven key ways: 1) being better listeners; 2) being better prepared; 3) digging deeper; 4) engaging in solitude and reflection; 5) keeping their cool; 6) not settling; and 7) writing more.

Of all of these qualities, I believe that one stands out in particular: the fact that introverted leaders have the ability to engage in solitude and rumination as a way to learn about themselves and their surroundings. In a world that seems to demand 24/7 attention from leaders, many authors argue that it is this "inward journey of leadership" that helps a leader step back from it all and create the self-awareness needed to lead effectively (Souba, 2006).

Studies have shown that leaders who take time to think introspectively have a far greater capacity for flexible or adaptive leadership (Cohill, 2007; Norton, 2010). In times of turmoil, angst, or crisis, when there is no clear-cut answer at hand, such adaptive leadership can be key (Heifetz, 1994). But to truly be adaptive, leaders must take the time to sit and think--to ruminate on their own past successes and failures, find the lessons from those experiences, and apply those general principles to new problems. And this is what can help to make introverts great leaders.

Certainly, extroverts and introverts can both make great leaders. But this article highlights some of the often overlooked qualities that can make seemingly "quiet" people into great leaders.

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