Could introverted leadership be the way forward?

Written by
Karl Moore

01 Sep 2016

01 Sep 2016 • by Karl Moore

The CEO of a major multinational recently shared with me that, as an introverted leader, he had to put on his “game face” whenever he left his floor. He’d realised that as a CEO of a big company, you need to act like, at times, as an extrovert. After studying introverts and extroverts in the C-Suite, I have come to the conclusion that extroverts, like myself, must also put on this “game face” and occasionally act like an introvert in order to be more effective leaders.

For two years I have been studying introverts in the C-Suite, in North America and Europe, in large companies. Most academic research suggests that senior leaders are predominantly extroverts. Contrary to this received wisdom, in my research over 30% of C-Suite executives are introverts.

Thankfully, this old school view is becoming passé, as we recognize the tremendous value that introverts bring to building effective, innovative teams. Diversity is not just about personality type, it is also about the likes of gender, race, national origin and functional area. However, in this post, I want to focus on introverts in the C-Suite.

What is good for the goose is good for the gander

This lead to the simple idea that if an introverted CEO must ‘become’ an extrovert to be an effective leader, then might the opposite be true? That an extroverted leader must channel their “inner introvert” in order to also be an effective leader?

Some of the strengths of introverts appear to be that they are typically better listeners; they wait for others to express their ideas before they jump in with theirs. Unlike extroverts they don’t need to be the center of every conversation and, when they present ideas, these tend come out more fully formed and well thought out.

One of the key things I am constantly trying to do on a personal level is become a better leader. This, in my case, includes learning to copy some of the key strengths of introverts and apply them to my own leadership roles. To do this, I am trying to tap into my own “inner introvert” and, in an authentic way, act like an introverted leader.

Three ways that I have tried to be more like an introverted leader are; listening better and backing off more often, allowing people that work for me to be the center of things, and taking time to think things through rather than jumping in straight away. Introverts tend to lean back in conversation, waiting and fully processing what is being said before throwing in their two cents. As a leader you want to fully hear out those you are leading, giving them an opportunity to vocalize their thoughts and opinions. In this way, extroverts can learn from introverts to be slower to speak and quicker to listen.

Leaning back

Alongside this idea of leaning back in conversation comes leaning back in projects and tasks you give to your people - allowing them to become the driving force. While over-seeing and guiding, of course, leaders can also loosen then reigns and allow others to take the center. By taking a step back, extroverted leaders are not only channeling their inner introvert, but are also empowering their employees – helping to foster a greater feeling of responsibility and importance in the work they’re doing. This particularly resonates with Millennials who tend to believe that their ideas are almost as good as their managers’ ideas - their ideas are actually quite useful if your firm needs to pivot and adjust strategy on a regular basis to navigate a turbulent environment.  Not every industry has to, but I am hard pressed to think of an industry that doesn’t need to. 

Taking time to think things through improves my ideas.  Rather than try to ‘out-clever’ others and impress them with how great my mind is, I have learned to listen longer before I must jump in.  This allows me to learn from their insights, things that I would have all too often missed in the past. A key lesson of strategy is that in today’s world ideas are more apt to come from front line troops who are in day-to-day contact with the turbulent environment.  More junior people are happy to let me make a decision but only after I have listened.

As an extrovert I have learned to put on my “game- face” and act more introverted, and I am a better leader for it.