Advance Performance | The Secret Strengths of Introverted Leaders
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The Secret Strengths of Introverted Leaders

The Secret Strengths of Introverted Leaders

“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers – of persistence, concentration and insight – to do work you love and work that matters.”

Quiet 2

“Everyone shines, given the right lighting.”

When the softly spoken unassuming author Susan Cain presented her talk about the power of introverts in 2012, her story and research took the TED audiences by storm.  For those 1 in 3 of us who quietly profess to be introverts in an extrovert world, Susan’s message resonates deeply.

In her talk and follow up book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Cain explores how the brain chemistry of introverts and extroverts differs, and how society misunderstands and undervalues introverts.

“We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”

Cain highlights the attributes of character over personality in introverted leaders who take fewer risks, pursue persistence, prudent thinking and have the ability to see and act on warning signs. She gives the example of Warren Buffet, the legendary investor and one of the wealthiest men in the world, as the ultimate introverted leader of the company Berkshire Hathaway. Where some investors take too many risks, are powered by the highs of achievement, Buffet is known for his calm temperament and low ego as he pursues success for his shareholders.

“There is no one more courageous than the person who speaks with the courage of his convictions.”

Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln…….. four self professed shy individuals who changed our world for the better.  Cain explains how each was empowered by their convictions to help other people and stand up for those without power. Each leader demonstrated passive resistance for example by refusing to stand up on a bus, or boycotting British goods, which actually led to the change in laws and ultimately change in society.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the conviction behind her husband, the President Franklin D, to empower the poor in the USA.  Although she struggled with public speaking, she was an eloquent writer and had strong empathy to communicate with ordinary people, which lead to social reforms through her husband’s position.

“Introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extrovert leaders, because when they are working with proactive employees they are far more likely to let the employees run with their ideas.” 

Adam Grant of Wharton Management has carried out extensive research on the outcomes of introvert leaders versus extrovert leaders working with different types of employees, with surprising results.  The higher results gained by introvert leaders, reflect teams working more cohesively with strong communication, respect and listening skills so that the best ideas are followed.

Cain states that although an extrovert leader can dominate a team with their ideas there is absolutely zero correlation between being the best speaker and having the best ideas. Yet in any group situation, team members tend to adopt the behaviour AND ideas of the best speaker.  Cain asserts we must reflect on the importance of the more passive leader who may be passed over for a less effective “louder” personality.

“Solitude matters, and for some people it’s the air that they breathe, and in fact we have known for centuries the transcendent power of solitude.  It’s only recently that we have strangely begun to forget it.”

In the area of creativity, Cain asserts the importance of finding more of a balance between extroversion and introversion in schools, the workplace and society.  Psychologists have found that the most creative people who are very good at advancing ideas also have a serious streak of introversion. Examples of this are Darwin pursuing his ideas of the origins of species during walks in the woods, Roald Dahl creating his characters in his shed down the garden and Steve Wozniak creating Apple 1 in his cubicle at Hewlett Packard. Cain highlights the natural need for introverts to have solitude to create and develop ideas before sharing them in a group.

She also explains the danger of the current emphasis on “groupthink” where we are encouraged to share ideas in a group, without allowing time for solitary problem solving and creative thinking.

Her advice to introverts with conviction is advice we can all follow to be the best we can be

“Introverts need to trust their gut and share their ideas as powerfully as they can. This does not mean aping extroverts; ideas can be shared quietly, they can be communicated in writing, they can be packaged into highly produced lectures, they can be advanced by allies. The trick for introverts is to honour their own styles instead of allowing themselves to be swept up by prevailing norms.”

To find out more about Susan Cain’s research, her upcoming talks and ideas visit her website