Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Can Introverts Be Great Leaders?

Glance at any leadership literature and you'll find the best leaders are supposed to be "passionate people", "captivating and charming", "great orators and persuaders", and much more that seems to aptly describe extroverted personalities. But what about introverts? Can they be great leaders?

Are you a introvert and a leader? How do you fare? Leave a comment below

The answer, perhaps, depends on the employees that make up the team. In a study published earlier this year in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers discovered that extroverts are better at leading introverts, and conversely, introverts are better at leading extroverts.

That's because the extroverted leader is able to rev up the quiet employees, while the introverted leader listens to the outspoken ones.

Good leaders, they found, were those that were able to adapt their style based upon whoever it is they're leading. Sometimes an expressive communicator is required; at other times, a reflective listener.

A dilemma, though, is that extroverts are most likely to get promoted. And they get promoted not because they make the best leaders, but because they're often the better networkers. Many of them build sociable connections with the right decision-makers, thereby upping their chances of climbing the career ladder.

The University of Notre Dame backed this up with an analysis of over 70 leadership studies. They found that extroversion was a major predictor of a person's leadership potential. By being the centre of attention, the extrovert is more likely to get noticed.

Gayle Avery is a professor in management at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management. She told me that both introverts and extroverts make valuable leaders, but "extroversion is often associated with heroic leadership".

Still, she believes introverts have plenty of leadership strengths.

"Their preference is to think through ideas and issues first before speaking," which means they don't dominate meetings and they care about employees' opinions. That's a highly desirable quality in a leader, she said, "particularly in dealing with complexity and diversity".

Professor Avery added that when introverts have something to say, "it is usually high quality and not likely to be merely hot air," but their preference for communicating via email can get them into trouble if that's how they try to resolve conflict.

In many organisations, the stereotype of the extrovert as the great leader still persists. In a survey conducted by USA Today, 65 per cent of executives said they perceive introversion as a barrier to leadership, and only 6 per cent believe that introverts are better at it.

Jennifer Kahnweiler is an executive coach and author of The Introverted Leader. When I asked her if introverts can excel at the higher levels of a corporate hierarchy, she responded in the affirmative. Of course.

"In times of crisis, they project a reassuring confidence," she said. "By responding – and not reacting – to events, they avoid costly gaffes. They take time to build relationships and trust with their teams, encouraging innovative thought and risk taking."

Dr Kahnweiler provided four steps that introverts could use to improve their leadership skills, based on her own research in this field.

1. Preparation: "designing their game plan," such as preparing questions in advance for meetings.

2. Presence: being "completely involved in the present moment, such as in conversations where they are able to capitalise on their tendency to listen well".

3. Push: "stretching and growing outside of their comfort zone". They do this by placing themselves in challenging scenarios, like delivering a presentation to a large group of people.

4. Practice: where leaders continually refine their people and communication acumen.

Much like other debates about who makes the better leader – such as men versus women, Gen X versus Baby Boomers, and democrats versus autocrats – the answer is that it doesn't really matter. What matters most, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, is that a leader leads.


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