No Such Thing as a Quiet Leader?
By Kendall Ackerman
Recently, I was tasked with interviewing applicants to fill an administrative position with an organization at Texas A&M University. I asked most of the “typical” questions that one might prepare for prior to an interview, such as, “Can you tell me about a time you had to work with a group on a difficult task?”, “Why do you want to work here?”, and “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” When I asked one applicant about her weaknesses, she responded with, “Well, I am an introvert.” Her response caught me off guard.
Since when has introversion been considered a weakness?!
This is a topic that has received much attention in organizational leadership research. So many organizations today use personality assessments in their application process. They assess traits such as openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and extraversion (i.e., The Big Five) in order to determine which applicants might be best suited for a leadership position. Generally, the applicants who score highly in a specific trait such as extraversion are the favored candidates. In fact, research has found that personality traits do, in fact, have an impact on job performance. But just because someone’s test scores indicate that they are more introverted than they are extroverted, does that automatically mean they won’t be an effective leader?
A recent article discussed this question in terms of common leadership paradoxes. Organizational leaders are generally expected to be extroverted and outgoing in order to effectively lead their teams. The desire for employees to be more engaged at work requires leaders to be in contact and involved with their subordinates – something that extroverted people are assumed to do better than introverted people. We think of effective leaders as people who command the room, guide and develop their subordinates, and get things done. We think of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George W. Bush, all of whom are extroverts.
But is it possible for introverted leaders to be just as effective as extroverted leaders?
Absolutely. Introverts have a unique advantage in that they tend to be viewed as more receptive to ideas, listening carefully to make their employees feel valued and motivated. They are often more organized and prepared due to their thoughtful and thorough nature. While they may be a bit uncomfortable interacting with people and being the center of attention, introverts’ ability to provide thoughtful insights and to make their employees feel heard and appreciated are traits that we look for when determining a leader’s effectiveness.
While an extroverted leader might focus more on the social interactions involved in leading, her introverted counterpart might focus more on the bigger picture to motivate her followers to get things done. These trade-offs are important to consider when identifying effective leaders, because leaders rarely work alone. Take the “Apple Steves”, for example. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, co-founders of Apple Inc., are likely one of the most famous extrovert-introvert duos to ever exist. Jobs acted as the face of Apple, while Wozniak served as the behind-the-scenes tech guru. Together, these two leaders on opposite ends of the introvert-extrovert spectrum created the world’s leading company in technology products and services.
So while extroverts are overwhelmingly believed to make the best leaders, we shouldn’t automatically pass over introverts when selecting for high performers and leaders! An introverted leader could bring a unique perspective to a team that would be overlooked by a more extroverted individual. Introverts like Apple’s Steve Wozniak have the power to do extraordinary things when given the chance to do so in a leadership position, so we should not overlook them!
Finally, I leave you with a tip to all self-proclaimed introverts: Next time you find yourself in an interview where you are asked to describe your greatest weakness, do not sell your introversion short! It can be a strength, if used appropriately. Be proud of your choice to be quiet in a world that can’t stop talking, as Susan Cain would say.