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3 reasons introverts can be good leaders

Our society has a narrow idea of what a leader looks like. But some introverts can be especially effective and compassionate leaders.

3 reasons introverts can be good leaders
[Photo: Mimipic Photography/Unsplash]

Introverts hold a quiet power in the world. Unlike extroverts, who gather energy by being around others, introverts typically prefer more intentional and quiet moments. But, just as it would be inaccurate to characterize all extroverts as outgoing, all introverts are not shy. And just because someone identifies as an introvert doesn’t mean they’re not a good leader, either.

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In fact, introverts can possess qualities that make them especially effective leaders, but our society doesn’t always recognize this. In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she discusses how American culture minimizes personality traits of introverts, and equates extroversion with success. “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal—the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight,” she writes.

As Cain told Fast Company in 2013, she once believed that, in order to be an effective public speaker and a person people look to for advice, she “[had] to be a super dynamic person.” But after developing more prowess in public speaking, and putting in time to practice, she realized introverts can evolve to meet Extrovert Ideals. Because of their thoughtful nature, introverts have the ability to adapt and grow into a role.

Joel Carnevale, a management professor at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management., points to a 2011 study that showed that introverts can excel at leadership—especially when they’re overseeing a group of extroverted employees.

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“The authors found that introverts tend to be more effective leaders relative to extroverts when their followers’ behavioral tendencies complement their own,” he says. “Specifically, [the researchers] found that introverted leaders tend to be more effective when their followers are proactive.”

Even though there are many historical examples of powerful introverted leaders—including Bill Gates, Rosa Parks, and Warren Buffet—some introverts can feel pressure to feign a more extroverted nature in order to get ahead.

This is likely due to the fact that our society tends to have a narrow idea of what leadership looks like. But introverted leaders possess unique capabilities. Here are three reasons introverts can be great leaders:

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Introverts thoughtfully consider their words and the words of others

Introverts are particularly good listeners and are generally better at asking questions, which can give them an advantage over extroverted leaders.

Listening is a key leadership quality because it demonstrates a measure of care and respect. “To some degree, the power of listening can be explained by the fact that good listening is rare,” wrote psychologist and Fast Company contributor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. “We live in a world in which people are often rewarded for self-promoting, being the center of attention.” Listening allows introverts to build and maintain deeper, more meaningful relationships—an essential for being an effective leader.

Introverts also often prefer writing over vocalizing their thoughts, which can allow them to be more thoughtful and intentional. But just because introverts value introspection doesn’t mean they don’t value social contact, which research shows is a tenet of sustaining good mental health. Rather, introverts prefer to have their social contact at certain times and in certain doses.

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Introverted leaders invite more diverse viewpoints

Most introverts don’t like being put on the spot or having to fight for airtime during brainstorming sessions. As chief corporate affairs officer at L’Oreal North America, and self-described introvert, Matthew DiGirolamo wrote, “Simply put, meetings are for extroverts.”

Many introverts “struggle to show up the way they want to or need to in meetings,” says DiGirolamo. “Their sensitivity to external stimuli means that they are easily overwhelmed in large group settings.”

However, once introverts are allowed to reflect on a situation, they can come up with great ideas. Introverts have a skill for seeing the bigger picture. Their natural sensitivities make them attuned to differing opinions.

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Introverted leaders demonstrate self-awareness

Western society still doesn’t see introverts as natural leaders. We tend to promote bigger personalities who excel at public speaking to leadership positions.

“Despite occasional claims from the popular press,” says Carnevale, “there really is an extrovert advantage when it comes to leadership, both in terms of one’s likelihood of emerging as a leader and being effective as a leader. This is one of the most consistent findings in leadership studies.”

The good news is, an introverted and emotionally intelligent person who’s willing to improve can mold their natural traits to fit a more extrovert-friendly business environment.

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“Introverts—as well as extroverts—can be trained to modify their behavior in ways that make it more likely they will emerge and be effective as a leader,” says Carnevale. “The key is to help them understand how modifying their behavior can help them achieve their goals.”

Introverts’ self-awareness keeps them from dominating conversations. In a comparison to more extroverted personalities, introverts don’t derive their energy from a room full of people talking over one another. 

Introverts are less likely to be “emotional vampires,” says Carnevale. “Introverts may be less likely to emotionally exhaust people. Extroverts are typically highly talkative, energetic, and . . . loud in social situations. Such tendencies can serve them well in the social [aspect] of leadership. However, such individuals can also drain others of their energy.”

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Fortunately, introverts are unlikely to take the air out of a room when these sorts of high-energy behaviors are present, and more likely to place the focus on others. They are perceptive of themselves and those around them, says DiGirolamo. In this way, introverts are effective leaders because they can both maintain awareness of the room and understand their effect on others.

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About the author

Diana is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously, she was an editor at Vice and an editorial assistant at Entrepreneur

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