The Leadership Challenge for Introverts

Jim Collins' widely read volume Good to Great underscores the ability of introverts to be great leaders. Of the CEOs whose success he chronicles, the overwhelming majority were introverts.

The demands of management and leadership, however, do not always align neatly with the inherent traits of introversion. Introverts, by their very nature, enjoy and make good use of time to themselves. They don't feel compelled to be with people and to interact with others constantly, the way that extraverts are prone to do.

Now, I'm using "extraversion" and "introversion" in keeping with their psychological definition, not the way that people speak of extroverts and introverts in day-to-day speech.

Usually when people describe a person as extraverted, they want to convey the image of someone who is dynamic and outgoing, someone who is forceful and animated when speaking to a group, someone whose presence exudes energy and confidence. In this sense "extravert" is the opposite of a quiet, passive personality.

But introverts (psychologically speaking) are fully capable of being energetic, dynamic, and outgoing. Many of the most accomplished actors and political figures in history have been pronounced introverts.

From a psychological viewpoint, the primary difference between extraverts and introverts is determined by the way that they recharge when their emotional batteries run down. Extraverts recharge by surrounding themselves with people, often in settings which involve tons of activity.

Introverts, however, recharge by pursuing quieter activities (such as reading or taking a long walk). And they pursue this activity either alone or at most with only a handful of people.

Why these contrasting approaches? Because heavy interaction with people has opposite effects on extraverts and introverts. For extraverts prolonged interaction with people is a net energy gain. For introverts it's a net energy drain.

So extraverts recharge by putting themselves in a crowd of people, where there are constant opportunities for interaction. Introverts recharge by getting away from people.

And this creates the challenge for introverts as leaders. Leadership is a decidedly interactive, interpersonal process. You may manage behind a closed door. But you can't lead from there. Leadership by its very nature demands constant involvement with people.

But when the demands get heavy, when the going gets tough, when the pace is exhausting, introverts are sorely tempted to withdraw, to go into a self-imposed isolation to re-energize. Without even realizing it, they may slip into subtle work patterns that signal disengagement from their people.

I don't mean that they go off to live in a monastery. But they may easily shift into a mode in which they interact less with people, seem frequently preoccupied with something other than the immediate conversation, or absorb themselves in projects that give them a rationale to work solo for hours at a time.

None of these patterns, sustained over an extended period, is good for effective leadership. But I've described these patterns as temptations, not as a path that the introvert necessarily chooses.

In fact, introverts must purposefully choose to stay engaged in the leadership process, even when their natural inclination is to hole up and recharge. It's a choice that effective introverted leaders have made for eons. But it means going against the way that introverts are wired.

The starting point for introverted leaders is thus to come to recognize their introverted nature and acknowledge it. They must accept that their introversion will often nudge them in directions that are not conducive to good leadership practices.

Then, having accepted this reality, they must be constantly vigilant, guarding against any tendency to react to stress and exacting demands by diminishing their level of interactive engagement.

And finally, when they feel the temptation to pull back in ways that are counterproductive to good leadership, they must have the discipline to resist the temptation.

Does this mean that introverts must forego the opportunity to recharge? Not at all. Everyone must recharge. Introverts must simply find ways to do so at times when their leadership responsibilities are not at the forefront. They must carefully manage their work-life balance to have sufficient time to themselves to renew their batteries.

All of this makes for a tall order, but not an impossible one. The successful CEOs whom Collins studied had clearly mastered the marriage of introversion and leadership. If you are an introvert, you can do so as well.


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