Myths of Introverted Leadership

Speak softly, and carry a big stick.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt

When we think of leaders, whether in politics, business, or any other field, there are a few stock figures that come to mind: the super-confident glad-hander; the boisterous barker of orders; the orator who wears a crowd like a well-fitted suit.

But personality is not destiny, and while it is true that some personalities tend to find themselves in leadership positions much more often than others, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are always the best choice. Let’s take a quick look at introverts and extraverts, for example – as these common myths of introverted leadership will illustrate, the louder extraverted voice may not always be wiser.

Myth #1 – Introverts Have a Hard Time Making Contacts

It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. By that measure, extraverts would seem to come out on top almost every time. For an extravert, no one is a stranger, which leads them to swiftly accumulate a list of contacts that can positively dwarf the efforts of an introvert.

On the other hand, having a massive list of nearly anonymous names may be less important in many instances than having a smaller circle of well-developed acquaintances, friends, and even partners. Where the extravert’s strength is to know a little bit about a vast number of people, the introvert’s ability to quietly absorb a great deal of information about the people who they spend time with can prove even more valuable. It comes down to a question of quality and quantity, and though the latter may be useful if, for example, one is a salesperson who needs a number of leads in order to move a product, an introvert may be much better at discovering the hidden talents of a smaller team, thereby maximizing their effectiveness.

Myth #2 – Introverts Are Less Likeable Than Extraverts

First impressions can be powerful, but they can also be misleading, which is why a quick smile and a confident handshake can propel an extravert into a leadership position that an introvert may have been much more suited for. And though introverts may overcome a naturally reserved demeanor to mimic the more obviously successful behaviors of extraverts, there will always be a sense that they are swimming against the current by doing so.

Fortunately, even as the initial likeability of an extravert can inspire feelings of trustworthiness and competence that may not be borne out by later events, an introvert’s low-key first impression may give them more flexibility when it comes to presenting their achievements later. An introvert may never be able to grab the attention of a room simply by walking into it, but the quiet, calm efficiency of an introverted leader often turns out to be a breath of fresh air for those who have grown tired of the flamboyant failures of the past.

Myth #3 – Introverts Are Poor Public Speakers

Extraverts tend to relish the audience; introverts shrink from it. While true in many cases, introverted leaders are well aware that public speaking at times is a necessity and can rise to the occasion when needed. However, unlike extraverts, who may often brainstorm out loud, exploring possible options, introverts are all too happy to say what needs to be said and then move on.

Typically, introverted leaders, recognizing their potential shortcomings in this area, spend ample time before any speech carefully preparing their remarks, editing them down to their pure essence. And while they may feel underprepared even when overprepared once on stage, their attention to detail often pays off. Take the Gettysburg Address – written and delivered by introvert Abraham Lincoln, it has survived where countless off-the-cuff statements of others have perished from this earth.

Myth #4 – Introverts Are Ineffective Managers

The stereotype of the introverted manager who hides in his or her office rather than deal with subordinates is certainly true in some cases... but then, so is the stereotype of the overzealously extraverted micro-manager, intervening in every minute occurrence that goes on in the workplace. Great managers come in all shapes, sizes, and, yes, personality types.

There is a proverb from the Tao Te Ching that is applicable here: “Governing a great nation is like cooking a small fish: too much handling will spoil it.” Introverted managers, by restricting their interactions with co-workers to only those cases when their presence is truly needed, often discover that delegation to trusted subordinates is much more effective than attempting to do everything themselves.

Myth #5 – Introverts Avoid Meetings and Other Social Gatherings

A common misconception of introverts is that they dislike public encounters, be they business meetings or cocktail parties. In reality, introverts do tend to feel “drained” by such events, just as extraverts are energized by them, but only in extreme cases do introverts avoid public engagements entirely. More often, introverts are simply more choosy about socializing than their more extraverted counterparts as they need to conserve their energy.

In leadership terms, this choosiness can prove beneficial. Where a more extraverted leader might call for one unproductive meeting after another simply because face-time plays to their preferences, an introverted leader, seeking to limit time spent with idle chit-chat, may bring a more focused, task-oriented approach to meetings, reducing both their number and their duration. And employees rarely take exception to these reductions.

Less Is More

The lesson to learn here is that while extraversion may make leadership positions easier to handle or more viscerally enjoyable, introverts can be just as competent as extraverts in leadership roles, particularly when they play to their own strengths while compensating for their weaknesses. And in fact, this distaste for the limelight may cause introverted leaders to be more thoughtful leaders, more accepting of criticism in an area that does not come as “naturally” to them.

In leadership, results are ultimately what matter, whether those results are achieved by a more socially attuned extravert or an actively listening introvert. We have ignored four other scales (such as Intuitive vs. Observant) in this article, but this should serve as a good reminder that there are no “good” or “bad” traits or types when it comes to real-life scenarios – each type is able to handle life’s challenges in their own, unique ways.