Bashful bosses can succeed


What do Mark Zuckerberg, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have in common? Apart from being great leaders and pioneers, they are also all famous introverts.

But in a world where highly visible extrovert leaders are the ones hitting the headlines, how do introvert leaders and deep thinkers compete? And how do you measure leadership qualities, particularly in quieter people who may not command the attention of an interview panel in the same way?

To understand how bashful bosses can succeed, we need to first understand what great leadership looks like.

In her book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain talks about the myth of charismatic leadership; how modern Western society rewards those who talk more and talk loudest. She calls it “the extrovert ideal.” Yet Cain illustrates through numerous examples how great ideas and innovations most often arise following periods of solitude and quiet contemplation. Without introverts, she points out, the world would be devoid of Google, the theory of relativity, and Chopin’s nocturnes.

Susan Cain’s TED talk:

Emotional intelligence (EQ/EI)

In our recently published World Class Leader Report, we examined the pivotal role that emotional intelligence plays in defining world class leadership skills.

Emotional intelligence relates to:

  • Management of social relationships, building networks and creating a positive working atmosphere
  • How we manage social complexities to achieve positive outcomes
  • Being self aware of our emotions and staying aware of how they affect us, and those around us
  • Regulation of our emotions so that we can control impulses and think before we act
  • Our ability to recognise other people’s emotional states and understand them to build and lead stronger team that focus on collaboration
  • Finding personal ways to self motivate and pursue our own goals for personal achievements

Employees are four times less likely to leave when they are under a manager with high emotional intelligence. Executives that lack emotional intelligence are rarely rated as outstanding in their performance reviews and their divisions underperform by 20% on average. (We’ll be publishing a handy infographic on this topic very soon.)

The self-awareness, reflection and self-regulation elements of emotional intelligence, as well as listening skills and empathy, are attributes and skills that introverts tend to excel in.

Risk averse versus reckless

Cain talks about how extroverts tend to be highly reward-sensitive and can therefore be more reckless and easily swayed by others. Whereas “the introverts are much better at making a plan, staying with a plan, being very disciplined.”

She describes how billionaire introvert Warren Buffet prospered during the Wall Street crash. He spotted danger signs early and kept his head while others were getting carried away and taking bigger risks. Then when the crash hit, he stuck to his investment formula and bought quality shares at rock bottom prices while others were panic selling.

Strong vision and the tenacity to deliver

Extroverts may be more vocal and are often great salespeople, but don’t make the mistake of thinking introverts are passive pushovers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Introverts can have a will of steel.

While they may avoid the limelight, an introvert leader’s time away from it is often put to good use developing systems and strategies to organise and implement their vision just as effectively (if not more so) than an extrovert leader who commands very visibly from the front.

Empathy and humility to understand the value that others bring

Bill Gates is a self-confessed introvert. When asked about it in this interview, he replies “If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert,” then explains how he balances his style of working by surrounding himself with different personality types: “You better hire some extroverts… and tap into both sets of skills in order to have a company that thrives.”

Bill Gates Q&A with ABC:

Top performance advice for introvert leaders

As I’ve hopefully shown, it’s a misconception that extroverts make the best leaders. Introverts can be just as effective, so long as they have the confidence to set clear expectations and boundaries, and can play to their strengths. Here are some tips for introvert leaders who want to succeed:

1. Communicate your preferred way of working

Introverts need time alone to reflect and consider options before making a decision. Make sure you plan in time for others to provide input so they don’t mistake you as aloof. Then explain that you will need time to evaluate all the options, as this will deliver better outcomes.

2. Be visible, observant and an active listener

“People watching” and listening comes naturally to you. So seek out opportunities to do this in places where your presence will be seen as engagement. Book in meetings and one-to-ones to invite participations from others. Join groups and committees to build your network of influence.

3. Plan ahead for speaking opportunities

This doesn’t have to mean public speaking, which introverts tend to find challenging (although it could, if you want the challenge). But asking for an agenda and preparing key points you want to make before a meeting can be really helpful.

4. Book in time and space to recharge

Spacing big meetings out will give you the time alone to reflect and recharge. Find a quiet space to work in between meetings so you can concentrate. As long as you make yourself available to colleagues and direct reports at certain times, you should be able to reclaim some quiet time without becoming known as a hermit. You might find the book Deep Work by Cal Newport useful in explaining the value of this time to extrovert colleagues. This book is also great for productivity hacks.

5. Be authentic

Your capacity for deep insight means you can develop a strong sense of purpose and position yourself as an authentic leader. Develop your leadership presence, not by trying to compete with louder voices, but by displaying strength through authenticity instead. Stick to your values, talk and move with purpose. You don’t need any high energy gimmicks.

Of course, introversion and extraversion are just one of many ways to categorise people. Individuals all have a unique combination of different personality traits that make up their whole profile.

In our next blog post, we will discuss some of these traits and examine some of the different psychometric tests that can be used to test for them when recruiting for senior roles.

If you would like any advice on strategic HR planning for your business, including recruiting the right type of leaders for your company culture and business goals, then give us a call today on +44 (0) 113 487 9300.

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