Introverted Leaders


This article was posted previously at Price Associates.

“Hi, I’m Andy. I’m an introvert.” “Hi, Andy.” So goes the typical introduction at the local support group for non-extroverts. So many of us have, for far too long, considered this aspect of ourselves to be something we would rather keep private (after all, we are introverts) than let it be known to others and bear the brunt of their attempts to fix us (make us more outgoing and extroverted). We sometimes allow others to treat us as if we have a disease. Perhaps we need to rethink our view of this deeply seated aspect of self. Consider the following list of fairly successful leaders in their respective fields of endeavor: Albert Einstein, Warren Buffett, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi, Sir Isaac Newton, Larry Page (co-founder of Google), Eleanor Roosevelt, Steven Spielberg, Steve Wosniak (co-founder of Apple). What do they all have in common? You guessed it, introversion. So much for the pity party held in honor of introverts. I have, in recent years, gained more clarity about this strength that I have been given. What is introversion?

Contrary to popular opinion, the word introvert is not a synonym for hermit or misanthrope. It’s not the same thing as shyness, nor is it the same thing as being highly sensitive. It has a lot to do with how we process information (actually which portions of our brains we use), the speed at which we process that information, and with how we behave in the world. We tend to think more deeply (we’re in our heads a lot) and slowly than extroverts. We aren’t as excited about change, especially rapid change. We tend to react to life more than act toward it. We don’t really like conflict. We abhor small talk, but most of us love deep meaningful conversations with close friends.

I’m an ENFJ on the Myers-Briggs personality test, which is why for so long I had no idea I was actually an introvert. Now that I understand what introversion is, it explains much better the way I experience life. In our consulting practice, we use the DISC, a four-trait behavioral model built on the psychology of William Marston. We measure behavioral traits on four continuums:

  • D – dominance
  • I – influence
  • S – steadiness
  • C – compliance

In this model, introversion is clearly seen in the two quadrants that align with high scores in the S and C aspects of behavior. Extroversion is the opposite and corresponds directly with the D and I aspects. Some individuals have DISC scores that straddle the fence between the two, having one foot in the extroverted side (D or I) and the other in the introverted (S or C). We refer to these as ambiverts. They nicely share the benefits of both sides and react situationally according to either.

Extroversion: American Style

Have you ever traveled abroad? When I was in my fourth year of architecture school, I spent a year studying at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Every time we had a break, a friend and I would load up our backpacks and hop the next train out of town with our Eurail Passes. My host family spoke very little English, so I was forced to quickly learn enough Danish to be dangerous or perish. When we would travel throughout Europe, I proudly displayed a Danish flag patch on my backpack and, when in doubt, I would speak Danish rather than English. Why?

Americans have a reputation around the world, for good and ill. We are all familiar with the stereotype of the “ugly American.” I think that’s what I was trying to avoid by pretending to be Danish. In America, “introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.”

What we may not understand is that the Extrovert Ideal is an American and western European cultural creation. In Asia and other parts of the world, introversion is the ideal. For fun and potential affirmation, google psychologist Robert R. McCrae and look at his map of the world divided by the superiority or inferiority of the trait we call introversion. Around the globe, we are divided between valuing one or the other of these opposing traits as most desirable.

The Introvert Revolution

Perhaps you’re unaware that a quiet revolution has begun. Introverts, by nature, are patient folks. But when we’ve had enough, sometimes we feel like Howard Beale, the character played by Peter Finch in the 1976 film “Network.” The famous quotation that Howard urges everyone listening to his newscast to go to their respective windows and shout is, “I am as mad as h_, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Many introverts, in their own way, are identifying with those feelings of frustration. They are, in fact, tired of being chronically misunderstood in American culture and are beginning to speak up about it.

As Susan Cain told Forbes magazine in an article on January 30, 2012, “People have been waiting for permission to articulate these things. Now that they have it, there’s going to be a groundswell. Introverts are starting to speak out.” Her words were prophetic. Since that time, only a year ago, the revolution has begun to spread. Books are appearing on Amazon. Blogs are spreading the word. Even the church is beginning to recognize that for too long it has propagated the stereotype of the extroverted pastor as the only model of leadership for the faithful.

Introverted Leadership

“For better or worse, the world is increasingly under the control of aggressive cultures—those that like to look outward, to expand, to compete and win.” So says author and expert on highly sensitive people, Dr. Elaine Aron. She goes on to describe the coalition that exists in successful societies, a coalition between what she calls “warrior-kings” and “priest-judge-advisors.” So, according to her theory, extroverts need us.

One of the things I so appreciate about the version of the DISC developed by TTI is the clear statement in the training manual that these behavioral traits are value-neutral. In other words, we believe that leaders can and do come from all different behavioral styles. Their leadership styles will differ greatly, but they are nonetheless quite capable of leading well, whether extrovert, ambivert or introvert.

The introverted leader leads differently. This is a crucial aspect of self-awareness. As introverts who lead in our own way, we must resist the temptation and the cultural pressure to be something other than we are. As the priest-judge-advisor leaders, we typically lead effectively leveraging those traits to the good and success of the organization. We lead carefully and wisely and most often in collaboration with other leaders around us who are more of the warrior-king type. We lead through change, often slightly adapting from our preferred slower pace, but never compromising careful and knowledgeable consideration as we move. We lead wisely through change. We bring stability and security, a sense of quality and excellence, to the organizations we head up.

This is essential and foundational information for all leaders who find themselves on the introvert side of the behavioral wheel. At Price Associates, we understand the unique strengths and weaknesses that are associated with introversion and seek to help these leaders use their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. We work intentionally with such leaders, always keeping this critical behavioral diversity in mind. We do not utilize, therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development.

If introversion is a part of your behavioral style (high S, high C, high S/C), I would encourage you to embrace who you are, without apology. For life-giving affirmation and understanding of how you tick, I would suggest you start with Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. As Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions, comments, “Quiet legitimizes and even celebrates that ‘niche’ that represents half the people in the world.” Happy reading!

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