- Introversion is not shyness or social aversion.
- Introversion is a personality trait, not an emotion.
- Introverts' traits—such as the ability to listen, gather data, and reflect—make them effective leaders.
As a psychologist and a CEO one of the most frequent questions I get is, "Can I be a leader if I am an introvert?" The resounding answer is yes!
When many people think of a CEO of a complex organization, they typically think of an outgoing people person who loves to be in the spotlight. This could not be further from the truth for me. In fact, being in the spotlight is incredibly exhausting for me. Most people are quite surprised when I tell them that not only am I not an extroverted person, but I am actually very introverted.
In this post, I will briefly define introversion and discuss the strengths that introverts bring as leaders.
What is introversion?
Most notably, introversion is not shyness or social aversion. Shyness is an emotion. Social aversion at its extreme can fall under a personality disorder or phobia. Introversion is a personality type, as described by the five-factor trait theory (the Big 5; Cervone & Perrin, 2016; Soto, 2015). Introversion was actually originally described by Carl Jung and defines how a person recharges his or her energy stores. An introvert is energized through internal means and introspection whereas an extrovert gravitates to social, crowd-based interaction.
Additionally, neurochemical reward pathways through dopaminergic activation occur through different stimuli for introverts and extroverts. Extroverts prefer external contact, think out loud, enjoy attention from others, like larger settings, and seek opportunities to speak their opinions. Conversely, introverts enjoy solitude, prefer inward reflection, are self-aware, seek independent relationships, like small intimate settings, and enjoy researching and studying topics.
It is important to note that most people are not purely introverts or extroverts. Like many psychological traits, introversion and extroversion are a continuum and can be plotted as a normal distribution (Cervone & Perrin, 2016; Soto, 2015). So, most people fall within one standard deviation of the mean of the two extremes. This indicates that many of us have a tendency toward characteristics on one side of the mean or the other, displaying slightly more introversion or extroversion. However, the differences are not as substantial as being labeled purely as an introvert or extrovert. We also find that highly introverted or extroverted people demonstrate substantial variability cross situationally and longitudinally (Cervone & Perrin, 2016). In other words, we may display introverted predispositions in one situation but extroverted in another — and these may change over time.
Leadership strengths of introverts
Leadership is a complicated subject. Extensive research has been conducted to decipher what personality traits make a good leader and which do not. Unfortunately, little peer-reviewed research has yielded significant results that unequivocally prove what makes a good leader cross-situationally (Andersen, 2006; Do & Mai, 2020).
The reason for this is that different circumstances require different leadership styles. Some leadership traits effective in one situation may not be effective in another situation. Leadership is highly contingent and scenario specific. Although leadership traits are dependent on the situation, there are certainly skills that are applicable to any leadership situation. Many of these skills are favorably embodied by introverted personality types, including the following:
- Listening. This is one of the most important and least practiced leadership skills. Too many leaders speak because they think they are supposed to have all the answers or be seen by others as always firmly in control. But these assumptions are entirely incorrect. In fact, leaders who are skilled listeners engage with others more effectively, gather more information, understand situations better, and make better decisions.
- Gathering credible data. Introverts enjoy studying and researching topics of interest. They tend to seek quality empirical information to make decisions whereas extroverts tend to enjoy gathering information through discussions with others. Both approaches are certainly valuable, but seeking baseline empirical data peer-reviewed by experts in the field certainly provides an opportunity to acquire non-biased, accurate information, laying the groundwork for better decisions.
- Reflecting. Taking information in through listening, studying, and considering various options leads to more effective results and is a hallmark of introverted personalities.
- Responding logically and not emotionally. Introverts by nature do not immediately respond. They stop, listen to others, research independently, think through options, and then respond. Many leadership situations are quite stressful with considerable pressure present. By responding immediately, the stress response system is engaged, leading the person to make more emotionally based decisions guided by the amygdala instead of slowing down to engage the prefrontal cortex and drawing from logical thinking processes (see my post on stress reactivity)
- Not being distracted by conflicting stimuli. Staying focused on the tasks at hand and mitigating the influence of other people or distractions reduces multi-tasking and the overwhelming negative effects it has on good decision making and performance. Being reflective, inward oriented, and research driven allow introverts to better avoid what I call the multi-tasking fallacy (see my post on multi-tasking), which leads to more stress and less effective leadership results.
So, if you consider yourself to be an introvert, embrace that personality type and never avoid taking on leadership responsibilities if that is your passion. You have many notable strengths that will serve you well in leading others. And if you are an extrovert, try to incorporate some of these introverted leadership strengths into your style, as they will only make you more effective.
Cervone, D, & Pervin, L.A. (2016). Personality theory and research (13th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Soto, C. J. (2015). Is happiness good for your personality? Concurrent and prospective relations of the big five. Journal of Personality, 81, 45-55.
Do, T.T, and Mai, N.K. (2020). Review of empirical research on leadership and organizational learning. Journal of Knowledge Management, 24(5), 1201-1220. https://doi.org/10.1108/JKM-01-2020-0046
Andersen, J.A. (2006). Leadership, personality and effectiveness. Journal of Socio-Economics, 36(6), 1078-1091