What does the word ‘leader’ make you think of? A powerful army general? An eloquent politician? A confident, charismatic CEO? We tend to associate strong leadership with certain alpha-type characteristics: extroversion, confidence and unwavering self-belief - or arrogance.
This image of the leader as a dominant tour de force has been heavily reinforced throughout history; leaders are fierce like Boudica, commanding like Napoleon or great orators like Churchill. But what if you’re none of those?
In a world that celebrates noise, introverted leaders don’t often hear themselves talked up. Traits like quietness, thoughtfulness and humility are not commonly associated with dynamic changemakers - but they should be. Far from being a problem to overcome, being an introvert is actually a great strength in leadership. Here’s how to harness the power of quiet.
The changing face of leadership
Historically, when leaders are held up as icons to be blindly followed by the masses, things haven’t worked out that well. It’s the same in business. Military style, top-down leadership is fast becoming a thing of the past. There was a time when the boss would make all the decisions and employees were expected to simply nod and comply.
These days, most organisations recognise that titles are just that. You may be the CEO, but that doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Innovative ideas or solutions can come from anywhere, which is why more leaders are choosing to work as a collective. The democratic approach to leadership improves productivity, promotes a culture of teamwork, and also provides a platform for others to shine.
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Business management writer Tom Peters believes the best leaders are those that don’t look for followers. ‘Great leaders don’t create followers,’ he says: ‘they create more leaders’. By encouraging and empowering those around them, great leaders recognise the huge power of the collective over the limited power of the individual.
Quiet leaders excel at this type of inclusive leadership because they instinctively know how to give others space to demonstrate their knowledge or expertise. Being a good listener, and having the humility to ask for advice or input, are invaluable traits in becoming a better leader. This type of leadership instills confidence and nurtures talent in a way that dominant, coercive leadership never could.
The introverted leader
In simple terms, introverts are more inward looking than extroverts. They think before they speak, they listen before they talk and they tend to focus on internal thoughts and ideas rather than external stimuli. Of course these aren’t binary personality traits and there’s plenty of grey area - but on the whole, introverts are usually more quiet, contemplative and reserved than people with extrovert personality types.
When it comes to great changemakers, they don’t come much more charismatic or inspirational than the late Steve Jobs. Self-assured, eloquent and flamboyant: when he spoke, his brilliance and confidence were palpable. So how would Apple find another Steve Jobs? They didn’t. Instead, they chose Tim Cook to replace him - a man who couldn’t be more different in terms of his personality and leadership style.
Unassuming, low-key and far less commanding than his predecessor, there were unsurprisingly some who thought Tim Cook could never measure up to the task. But since becoming CEO in 2011, he has made significant, often quiet changes at Apple that have benefited their bottom line, boosted staff morale and improved the brand image.
In 2012, he apologised for a technical problem with Apple Maps (a distinctly un-Apple PR move); he recognised talent and worked hard to convince Apple’s top hardware engineer, Bob Mansfield to remain at the company; he settled a lawsuit with HTC and tried to settle with Samsung, and one of the first things he did as CEO was implement a company policy of matching all charitable donations made by employees.
Tim Cook’s actions as CEO of Apple perfectly demonstrate the power of the introverted leader. His humility, powers of analysis and ability to calmly look at the bigger picture highlights how effective and dynamic quiet leaders can be.
Nobody proved the power of quiet better than Nelson Mandela - possibly the most famous introverted leader of all time. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes himself as an introvert and talks about attending the African National Congress meetings: ‘I went as an observer not a participant, for I do not think that I ever spoke. I wanted to understand the issues under discussion, evaluate the arguments, see the calibre of the men involved’.
Mandela’s ability to constantly observe, analyse and ruminate gave him the power and knowledge to change things. Instead of speaking, he listened and took the time to formulate his own ideas and actions. While extroverts are great talkers, introverts are great listeners. This not only makes them good learners, it also means they’re more likely to empathise with others.
Empathy and a deep understanding of the world around us are two major distinctions between extroverts and introverts. Extroverts are more likely to have a stronger sense of ego, or to push their own individual agenda. Conversely, introverts usually see the cause or institution as more important than themselves. Susan Cain talks about this in her book, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: ‘We don't need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.’
Why it doesn’t matter
The truth about leadership is: there isn’t one ultimate truth. Effective leaders can be extroverts or introverts. The important thing is recognising and harnessing the power of both personality types. By being authentic and accepting who you are, you can focus on strengths rather than seeing limitations.
The Myers-Briggs test, based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, identifies 16 personality types - eight of which are introverted. Within these eight types, the most prevalent traits are independence, logic, creativity, adaptability and analytical thinking.
It’s easy to see why these characteristics are beneficial in leaders. By observing and analysing, introverts often make rational, well thought-out decisions - and since agility is the ultimate business buzzword, being adaptable is one of the most valuable skills a leader can have.
If you lean towards introversion, embrace it. Use your traits to your advantage as a leader. As Susan Cain writes: ‘the trick for introverts is to honor their styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.’
For example, most introverts don’t relish the thought of big meetings, but they excel at one-to-one communication - so try to create smaller situations where it’s just you and one other person, or perhaps speak to people in an informal setting. According to Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader, ‘Discussions that don’t happen in large groups but do off the factory floor and outside the conference room are more effective’.
One of the most notable qualities of introverts is their power to nurture and encourage others. While exuberant, dominant leaders often like to be the ‘star’, quiet leaders allow others to shine by asking them for their opinions or giving them opportunities to share their knowledge. This style of leadership promotes a democratic way of operating, it boosts morale and loyalty and, most importantly, it makes people feel valued. A simple and effective way to implement this type of leadership is by asking more questions and actively including others in projects that you’re working on.
From Charles Darwin to Barack Obama, some of the greatest innovators and leaders throughout history have been introverts, proving the maxim of still waters running deep. Despite this, in a business world that seems to celebrate the attributes of extroverts, it can sometimes feel like introverts are overlooked as leaders or misinterpreted.
The truth is, these days, companies - and nations - need the qualities of introverts more than ever. In a global era where uncertainty looms large and markets change in a flash, the calm, rational, analytical minds of introverts often find effective, pragmatic solutions.