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Can introverts shine as leaders?


This article was published in the 3-March-2014 issue of Finweek Magazine

The stereotype that extroverts are more successful or make better leaders than introverts is everywhere. Looking at today’s leaders, you’ll often see this bias in action. We expect them to be charismatic, outgoing and articulate. Usually it is the outgoing sociable person who gets promoted over the introvert, or who plays the role of hero in the movie. With open plan offices and their emphasis on collaborative teamwork, many companies focus on this extroverted bias, making it harder for more introverted people to shine and to grow into leaders. But if you are an introvert, don’t lose hope! In this article, we challenge many of the misconceptions about introverts and share eye-opening examples of famous introverts.

But first: what is an introvert and what are the common misconceptions about introverts?

There is a widespread misunderstanding about introverts. If you ask people to describe an introvert, or if you look up “introvert” in a dictionary, you’ll find words like shy or reticent. Shyness is so often mistaken for introversion that many times the words are used interchangeably. In actual fact, the two traits are NOT the same. An introvert enjoys time alone – they are energised by solitude – and their energy gets sapped after spending a lot of time around other people. By contrast, a shy person doesn’t necessarily prefer to be alone – rather, they are scared to interact with others.

Susan Cain recently published a trailblazing book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. According to Cain, at least a third of the global population choose listening over talking, reading over socialising, and working on their own instead of collaborating in teams. This makes them introverts.

Is it true that introverts shy away from fame, don’t make good leaders or public speakers? Definitely not  – many introverts like Al Gore, Gandhi and Obama enjoy and excel in leadership roles, speaking in public, and being in the limelight.  Furthermore, introverts are not antisocial. They can be outgoing, they just tend to enjoy social interactions differently to the way that extroverts do. 

What makes introverts different from extroverts, is their innate drive to be alone. Alone-time energises them. And too much socialising drains them. South African entrepreneur Alan Knott-Craig Jr says being an introvert means that he draws energy from inside. “So if I don’t spend time pulling myself towards myself, I do get stressed.”

Introversion is not about shyness or shying away from the company of others. It is about where your energy comes from.

Introversion and leadership: debunking the myths

In her ground-breaking book, Susan Cain challenges the Extrovert Ideal  – our deep-rooted idea that extroverts are more intelligent, more capable, or that they make better leaders.

It is a misconception that Harvard’s Professor Francesca Gino has also encountered in her research: “Many people associate extraversion with action, assertiveness and dominance – characteristics that people believe to be necessary to be effective leaders. The features that define extraversion are commonly the features that people associate with leadership.” The letters CEO even spell out an acronym for the extroverted CEO stereotype: C for charismatic, E for effusive, and O for outgoing.

According to Cain, introverts can shine as leaders, even though it often doesn’t come naturally to them. This is a view shared by Jennifer Kahnweiler, author of bestseller The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. “Introverts lead with quiet confidence” she says.

Research even indicates that introverted leaders are often extremely successful in leadership roles (in terms of company performance).  And based on stats from USA Today, roughly four in 10 top executives are introverts. However, they may need to work harder to ultimately reach these rungs in the career ladder.

Both extroverted and introverted leaders can be successful or ineffective – it all depends on whether their followers are extroverted or introverted. According to a pivotal study, extroverted leaders can hamper an organisation’s performance if their followers are extroverts. Why? “Often the leaders end up doing a lot of the talking, and not listening to any of the ideas that the followers are trying to provide,” says Prof. Gino, who carried out the research with Wharton’s Prof. Adam Grant and UNC Kenan-Flagler’s David Hofmann. Introverted leaders, by contrast, are more likely to listen to, digest and execute the ideas of an extroverted team. The lesson? Leaders need to adjust their style to suit their team: an introverted leader works best for an extroverted team, while an extroverted leader is better suited to making a passive team shine.  

Famous introverts

To support the research findings and put the common misconceptions to rest, just look at the world’s leaders. Introverts are definitely not a group of shy wallflowers – they are recognised leaders who can make formidable public speakers.

In South Africa’s business leader category, some well-known introverts come to mind:

  • Herman Mashaba, our very own humble, unassuming self-made millionaire and founder of Black Like Me.
  • Elon Musk, the South-African born entrepreneur and Tesla CEO, describes himself as an introverted engineer to whom speaking in public didn’t come naturally. How did he master it? With lots of practice and effort. “As the CEO, you kinda have to”, says Musk.
  • Alan Knott-Craig Jr, founder of iBurst and World of Avatar, multi-millionaire and for a short time the CEO of Mxit. He describes himself as “an extreme introvert”.
  • Erik Venter, the more-introverted CEO in Kulula’s joint CEO partnership with Gidon Novick. The two were joint CEOs for over 5 years until Novick resigned in Dec-2011. Venter gravitated towards the operations side of the business, while the more gregarious Novick preferred the PR and marketing.
  • Willem Roos, the actuary who co-founded Outsurance with René Otto and Howard Aron. Roos was known as the more introverted of the trio.

Outside South Africa, famous introverted business leaders include Bill Gates, Larry Page, Warren Buffett and Steve Wozniak.

Two famous South African introverts in the political arena were Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. In Madiba’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, he described himself as an introverted, serious observer who loves solitude more, despite being outgoing. Thabo Mbeki, former SA president, has been called “something of an introverted bookworm since he was young.“

Beyond SA’s shores, Al Gore, former US vice-president and advocate against global warming before it became fashionable, is definitely not someone you’d describe as an introvert. How do you explain this contradiction? In her Forbes.com article, Susan Adams sheds some light: “I’d argue that many of us adjust our behaviour to the context we’re in. When Al Gore was running for president he didn’t act much like an introvert. Neither does Warren Buffett when he gets up in front of an audience and expounds on investing. But Cain’s point is that at heart, they and many others prefer to turn inward when given the choice, and they treasure their time alone more than the extroverts among us, who crave to be surrounded by a crowd.”

Other world-famous political introverts include Martin Luther King Jr, Barak Obama, Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln.

Surprising celebrity introverts include Steven Spielberg, Angelina Jolie, Christina Aguilera, Uma Thurman and Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn famously said: “I’m an introvert…I love being by myself, love being outdoors, love taking a long walk with my dogs and looking at the trees, flowers, the sky.”

So if you’re an introvert, you’re in exceptional company.

With that, what is the key take away? Leadership isn’t only for extroverts. Introverts  can become incredible leaders. So if you’re an introvert, don’t exclude yourself from leadership roles (or from fame or public speaking, for that matter). As author Daniel Pink said: “In some sense we are all equipped to lead. And that means a hidden but urgent challenge for organizations of every kind is to shatter the stereotype of who’s an effective leader.”


Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

2 thoughts on “Can introverts shine as leaders?

  1. Thank You for a brilliant article. I thoroughly enjoyed Susan Cain’s book and for me it also highlighted how different nationalities, cultural groups and even industries emphasize introvert or extrovert traits.

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