Everything you need to know about introverted leaders

Two prime examples.
Two prime examples.
Image: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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To be a great boss, you don’t have to be an extroverted back-slapper. A growing body of research suggests introverts can be excellent leaders too.

After all, billionaires Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Bill Gates have been described as introverts. And other CEOs including Colgate Palmolive’s Ian Cook (paywall), have cited their introverted personalities as an advantage.

The key to success for both extroverts and introverts comes down being honest about strengths and weaknesses, and picking the right approach.

What’s the difference?

Introverted doesn’t necessarily mean shy. Extroverted doesn’t always mean gregarious.

A better definition might be that introverts tend to find social interaction draining, particularly with large groups. They gather their energy from time spent alone. An even more precise characterization might focus on sensitivity: Introverts are more inclined to be overstimulated by other people. They need solitude to recover.

How can that possible be a good thing?

Sensitivity is strength. Research from Wharton professor Adam Grant (pdf) suggests that introverted leaders are much more likely to listen to and empower employees that come up with new ideas, whereas extroverted bosses are more apt to feel threatened and shut them down.

As a result, introverted bosses end up improving employee performance when managing proactive people. Introverts also tend to be less status conscious and more likely (pdf) to value input and admit to mistakes.

Introverts also tend to be more inclined towards abstract thought, may make them better at thinking about the long term, and avoiding some of the negative traits (paywall) associated with extroverted leaders—such as being aggressive, grandiose, and over-estimating their own abilities.

A day in the life of an introvert manager

Great introverted leaders build a structure that works for them. For example, rather than using a command-and-control approach, Warren Buffett favors a particularly extreme form of decentralization (documented extensively in  The Outsiders) that plays to his personality. The CEOs who run Berkshire subsidiaries are trusted to run them almost entirely on their own. There are few staff at Berkshire Hathaway headquarters, and reading is emphasized over meetings, which are incredibly infrequent. But managers always have an open line to call Warren for advice.

It’s not that he’s bad at or averse to personal relationships—many of his best deals have come from getting to know the owners of private and family companies. But his very successful management philosophy emphasizes an ability to find good people and mostly leave them alone, instead of actively rallying employees and managers day in and day out.

Balance out your weaknesses

At Microsoft, Bill Gates made sure to offset his own introverted tendencies with key hires. He had this to say, as part of chat on the topic with the Australian Broadcasting Company last year.

If you want to hire people, get them excited, build a company around that idea, you better learn what extroverts do, you better hire some extroverts, like Steve Ballmer I would claim as an extrovert, and tap into both sets of skills in order to have a company that thrives both in deep thinking and building teams and going out into the world to sell those ideas.

Be frank about your proclivities

Douglas Conant, the CEO credited with helping turn Campbell’s Soup around, told the Harvard Business Review that being an introverted leader is frequently difficult. People often saw him as aloof or disinterested. His solution was to actively let people know about his shortcomings, and ask for help:

One of the best ways I’ve found to help people overcome their discomfort around my behavior is to simply declare myself. I tell them, “If you see me looking aloof, please understand that I’m shy, and I need you to call me out.” By declaring myself in this way, I’ve found other people quickly, and compassionately, adapt to my style.

The potential pitfalls

People still perceive (pdf) extroverted leaders as more effective. Extroverts are more likely to be selected as leaders, regardless of objective performance, so that’s a gap that introverted leaders have to overcome. Their strengths as a manager can turn out to be weaknesses if they’re working with passive or less experienced people who need motivation. The flip side of Grant’s research (pdf) is that passive employees are worse off with introverted leaders.

And just as extroverted leaders should consider countering a tendency to be domineering, introverted leaders need push themselves to be more assertive when it’s appropriate.