Why You Don't Have to Be an Extravert to Be a Great Leader
Research challenges the notion that extraverts are better leaders.
Posted March 31, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
For years, studies have shown that introverts are at a disadvantage when compared to extroverts as leaders. A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology contradicts that notion, showing that communication not extroversion may be the most important driver of leadership perceptions.
“Yes, people with superior communication skills have a leadership advantage,” says James Lemoine, Associate Professor of Organization and Human Resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management and co-author of the study. “But no, it’s not extroversion that’s important since extroverts aren’t necessarily any better at interpersonal communication than introverts or ambiverts.”
To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers recruited over 400 university undergraduates to take part in a group decision-making study. They split participants into small groups and asked them to consider various initiatives being proposed by a fictitious company. Participants were asked to discuss the merits of each initiative with other members of their group.
After discussing the initiatives, participants rated each other on a measure of leadership potential (“To what extent did you rely on [participant name] for leadership?” 1 = not at all; 5 = to a great extent). Participants also filled out a scale measuring trait extroversion. Finally, the researchers videotaped the conversations so they could evaluate each member’s communication skills.
The results showed that communication, not extroversion, was the key factor driving perceptions of leadership potential; and that extroverts weren’t any better at communicating in the group setting than introverts. This, Lemoine believes, is a finding that all non-extroverts should be aware of.
“Introverts have read and been told they’re at a disadvantage compared to extroverts in terms of being viewed as leaders and being promoted into leadership roles,” says Lemoine. Extroversion is not something that can be taught; it’s a stable personality difference. "But our research shows that it’s communication skill, not extroversion, that is the important driver of leadership perceptions." Communication skills can be learned, which means anyone can develop their communication skills to enhance their chances of being viewed as leadership material.
The authors make clear that the study is less about what makes for a good leader and more about who might be perceived as a leader.
“These are two separate things,” says Lemoine, "leadership effectiveness and leadership emergence." Things that make you look like a leader often don’t have anything to do with leadership effectiveness. Tall men often, for example, get promoted into leadership roles, but neither height nor gender makes you a better leader.
If you are hiring people for leadership roles, the importance of leadership effectiveness versus emergence comes into play even more.
To sum up, the researchers suggest that communication skills can certainly enhance leader potential but being an extrovert is not as important.
“To the contrary, some research shows that introverts may have advantages in many leadership situations, such as when more deliberate and methodical paces are appropriate,” concludes Lemoine.
Lemoine, James (Interview). Why you don’t have to be an extrovert to be a good leader. Therapytips.org, March 16th, 2022.