4 Ways Introverted Leaders Can Excel over Extraverts

introverted leader

Some of our greatest leaders—think Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bill Gates—have been introverts.

Despite the fact that American society idealizes the extravert, there have been books, TED talks and studies about the strength of introverted leadership. Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of “The Introverted Leader: Building On Your Quiet Strength” and Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” have put introverts in the spotlight. Cain’s TED Talk has been viewed more than 11 million times.

If you’re someone who is generally calm and reserved, likes to spend time alone, and is more likely to be reflective when presented with a challenge than immediately jump to action, chances are you’re an introvert–or at the very least, more introvert than extravert. And when it comes to the corporate world, you’ve got lots of company.

John Warner, a psychologist and management consultant in Los Angeles who coaches introverts, says about 60% of leaders have introverted preferences. Introversion, he says is all about drawing energy from the internal world of thoughts and ideas. That’s how well known psychologist Carl Jung defined it. Conversely extraverts, says Warner, draw their energy from the outside world.

American society is a more extraverted than introverted society, so if you’re an aspiring leader you may think being introverted is a handicap. Not so, says Warner. In fact he says good management teams have a balance of both introverts and extraverts. “Introverts have a lot to bring to the workplace,” says Warner. “They are generally more effective than extraverts at focusing and thinking deeply about important issues and then coming up with new ideas.” And introverts often notice details that extraverts miss. They may need a little more time and space to perform–and sometimes a little help in teasing out ideas–but the results are usually well worth it. A recent study found that extraverted leaders can actually be a liability when it comes to a company’s performance, especially if their followers are extraverts too.

If you’re an introvert, there will be many situations where your ability to reflect more deeply and listen closely will be a big benefit, because longer reflection before action is an asset when you have to make strategic decisions.

Here is some advice from Warner for those with a more introverted style, about how to leverage those tendencies to be a better leader:

  • Listen deeply. It’s important in business to make sure you’re listening to the real voice of the customer or employee, because you never know who will have the best solution to a problem or answer to a question. When it comes to leadership, the ability to be able to listen to those on both sides of an issue when making a decision is critically important – and that gives introverts an advantage. Someone who talks first, like an extravert, is likely to initiate the conversation and may not give the other side a chance to finish.
  • Keep calm under pressure. Extraverts often thrive on pressure and they will try to create a certain amount of it because of that, but you can’t do that all the time. We generally want our leaders to be individuals who don’t initiate stress and are better at calming things down and making thoughtful decisions. These are great attributes for leadership. That’s why if you’ve got a leadership team that’s heavy on extraverts it’s like operating with one hand behind your back. As an introvert, you can leverage this strength. It’s a way to showcase your leadership ability.
  • Build better quality relationships. Because you’re listening and taking time to reflect, your ability to allow a to-and-fro between individuals is enhanced. You’re listening, checking for understanding, and building longer lasting relationships with colleagues or direct reports more quickly than an extravert, who is often more transaction-oriented. Extraverts may think: “I only need you on this conversation for ten minutes” or “I just need you to get me from point A to B.” That’s not really building a relationship; it’s the task that’s most important. Extraverts will take longer to build lasting relationships, but introverts have a skill set that says, “I won’t interrupt you and talk over you.” It may not be true, but it looks as if the introvert cares much more about you and what you’re saying. And that matters.
  • Do your pre- and post-game planning. Introverts draw from inner resources and because of that, they think about what they say and do way more than extraverts. They won’t do things impetuously or randomly and when they move in a certain direction, they will have evaluated if that was the better thing to have done, so the next time they face that situation, they’ll do better. An extravert, however, may leap in with a bit of intuitive planning or very little planning and do a lot less post-game analysis. Life feels too busy for them to do an audit. But an introvert will ask “Did I do this in the best possible way?”

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.