Are Intorverts Good Leaders?
They draw on important strengths that extroverts may not have.
“Most people don’t know that I’m an introvert.”
I hear this confession from surprisingly many successful executives. Quite a few, in fact, talk at length with me about their introversion, speaking candidly and often cathartically about their experiences. Most also admit that at some point in their leadership journey they’ve had to work to overcome being disregarded or misunderstood because of their quiet temperament.
How do these introverted leaders do it? How do they thrive in the extroverted business world? They seek to understand–and play to–their strengths.
It has been reported that a full 40% of executives describe themselves as introverts, including Microsoft‘s Bill Gates, the über-investors Warren Buffett and Charles Schwab, Avon’s chief executive, Andrea Jung, and the late publishing giant Katharine Graham. Odds are President Barack Obama is an innie as well. What does that mean? That introverts, not just extroverts, have the right stuff to lead organizations in a go-go, extroverted business culture
Here are five key characteristics that help introverted leaders build on their quiet strength and succeed.
1. They think first, talk later. Introverted leaders think before they speak. Even in casual conversations, they consider others’ comments carefully, and they stop and reflect before responding. One executive tells me that he sits back and listens to his leadership team’s ideas and proposals, often using silence to allow even more thoughts to bubble up. Learning by listening, not talking, is a trait that introverts consistently demonstrate. They also use their calm, quiet demeanors to be heard amid all the organizational noise and chatter. (One thoughtful, reasoned comment in a meeting can move a group forward by leaps and bounds.) In fact, the most powerful person in the room is often the most quiet. Additionally, an introvert’s tendency to be more measured with words is a major asset in the current economy, when no leader can afford to make costly gaffes.
2. They focus on depth. Introverted leaders seek depth over breadth. They like to dig deep, delving into issues and ideas before moving on to new ones. They are drawn to meaningful conversations, not superficial chitchat, and they know how to ask great questions and really listen to the answers. In a recent interview with TheNew York Times, Deborah Dunsire, M.D., president and chief executive of Millennium, a Cambridge, Mass., biopharmaceutical company, said, “In addition to conducting organizational surveys and holding town hall meetings, I schedule walk around time, just stopping by offices. … I would just say, ‘Hey, what is keeping you up nights? What are you working on? What’s most exciting to you right now? Where do you see we can improve?'” Dr. Dunsire maintains that by pursuing this kind of in-depth questioning–something that introverted leaders do exceptionally well–executives can learn what’s actually happening in the far reaches of their organizations and engage and retain their top talent.
3. They exude calm. Introverted leaders are low-key. In times of crisis, they project a reassuring, calm confidence–think President Obama–and they speak softly and slowly regardless of the heat of the conversation or circumstances. Whenever they get ready for a meeting, a speech or a special event, their secret to success can be summed up in one word: preparation. They often plan and write out their meeting questions well in advance, and for important talks and speeches, they rehearse out loud. They also act “as if”: One executive tells me that he pretends to be James Bond before major industry conferences. It makes him feel more cool and confident. They psych themselves up internally, too, by quieting negative thoughts and framing the upcoming experience more positively. Prior to networking events, Bob Goodyear, an Atlanta-based information technology leader, tells himself, “I can do anything for 30 minutes.”
4. They let their fingers do the talking. Introverted leaders usually prefer writing to talking. This comfort with the written word often helps them better articulate their positions and document their actions. It also helps them leverage online social networking tools such as Twitter, creating new opportunities to be out there with employees, customers and other stakeholders. For instance, using Best Buy‘s (Blue Shirt Nation, an internal social network for employees at the electronics superstore, senior management and sales associates can connect continuously to discussing workers’ feedback and ideas. I know one chief financial officer who writes a daily internal blog and in a recent posting described how he made “a good presentation great” by practicing. In so sharing his experience, he not only showed openness and honesty but also provided coaching to thousands of employees.
5. They embrace solitude. Introverted leaders are energized by spending time alone. They suffer from people exhaustion and need to retreat to recharge their batteries frequently. These regular timeouts actually fuel their thinking, creativity and decision-making and, when the pressure is on, help them be responsive, not reactive. When introverts honor that inner pull, they can do their best work. In managing interruptions, they also manage people’s expectations. When asked to respond to requests or ideas, Martin Schmidler, a vice president at a national food service organization, often tells his team that he needs time to absorb what’s being asked or presented. He’s clear on how and when he’ll get back to people, and he consistently follows through on his commitments. This clarity and consistency helps him build trust with his team.
Jennifer B. Kahnweiler is the author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. She is founder and president of AboutYOU, an Atlanta-based leadership consultancy, and is an executive coach and corporate speaker.