Do leaders need to be extroverts to be effective?
It’s been a long-standing assumption that business leaders must have more extroverted, rather than introverted, characteristics to succeed as effective leaders and managers.
Qualities of being outgoing, energetic, having high self-esteem, being socially confident, and good at public speaking have all been associated with attributes needed to competently run a company and lead a team. Despite this, many have criticised this notion as outdated and have supported the idea that any type of person, including introverts, can make tremendous, and potentially better leaders, than their extroverted counterparts. Is this true? Business Leader investigates…
Joeri Hofmans, Professor in Work and Organisational Psychology from the University of Brussels, says: “Despite many considering extraversion as such a strong predictor of leadership emergence, when looking at the recent scientific literature, the purported benefits of being extroverted for leader emergence is far less clear than originally expected. For example, there is mounting evidence that, while extroversion is associated with leadership emergence, it is not necessarily related to leadership effectiveness.
“Martin, Liao, and Campbell (2013) for example reported that while a directive, assertive leadership style can enhance proactive behaviors in individuals who exhibit satisfaction with their leaders, empowering leadership, which is much less directive and “extroverted,” is more important for boosting the proactivity of those who are less satisfied with their leaders. Grant et al. (2011) similarly reported that introverted leadership is, at times, more efficacious than extroverted leadership, especially for employees who are proactive.”
‘Introverts’ are often characterised as individuals who feel comfortable being alone, are internally reflective and are not particularly attracted to large social groups. As a result, extroverts have often been made out to be better equipped with the natural leadership or entrepreneurial skills to lead a team of people, manage different personalities, or pitch business ideas effectively — but where does the idea that leaders need to be extroverted come from?
“That idea is rooted in the typical heroic leadership model: charismatic, type A characters (usually male) with a muscular, gung-ho focus on action – think Henry V” says Adrian Mills, Director of Business & Operations at BBC Local.
“And think how often we use competitive, sporting metaphors and analogies to describe leadership. If we’re talking monarchs as leadership models, think Elizabeth I: quietly determined, a brilliant strategist, a woman who would often choose not to act, even when facing pressure from her more aggressive male courtiers. Sometimes a chess player makes a better leader than a footballer…”
Does a leader need to be extroverted to be effective?
Mills feels that a great leader has a range of introverted and extroverted characteristics, and knows when to utilise each one at the correct opportunity. He comments: “A good leader doesn’t need to be an extrovert, but I they do need to be able to demonstrate a range of approaches and behaviours, so they can deploy extravert behaviours as occasions/situations require. The challenge of course is to have the intelligence, experience and confidence to know when to deploy which.”
Bruce Alexander, a Managing Director in the food sector, feels the best leaders are the ones with a strong sense of self-awareness, which can be found in both types of people. He comments: “The best leaders need to be passionate, be clear on the vision and then build and inspire the team to deliver. There is no doubt that extroverts have charisma and an ability to influence and persuade but they also tend to talk more than listen. The best leaders have strong self awareness so they understand their strengths and their weaknesses and can therefore build teams with complementary skills.”
While leaders may have traditionally needed to be extroverted, introverted characteristics have the potential to lend itself to a leader role. Simon Haigh, Business and Leadership Strategist, says: “Good business leaders need to create a bridge for the future so that others can walk across that bridge. Leaders do this through communication – it is ALL about empathetic communication. So, introverted characteristics can be beneficial to organisations provided the leader in question has sufficient awareness to balance courage with compassion. Introverted characteristics framed in this respect can encourage inclusiveness, promotes teamwork and psychological safety.”
What do introverts bring to the table that extroverts don’t?
Mills feels that effective leaders come in all shapes and sizes and introverts offer a different array of traits that are just as useful in a leader. He says: “As psychometrics tell us, no single personality trait is better than another. Each has their own strengths and challenges. It’s the same with leadership – sometimes there are clear benefits to a quieter, more thoughtful and reflective approach. A leader with an understanding of how introverts function will also be much more effective at getting the best from the introvert employees. When we talk diversity in the workplace, diversity of personality is as important as other characteristics.”
Alternatively, Tom Zalatoris, Executive Coach and Advisor to CEOs, feels that as communication is a requirement of leaders, extroverts tend to make better ones. He says: “In my opinion, it’s not outdated. When talking about leaders, we frequently see our politicians as leaders (whether we like them or not is another question) — and how many famous politicians are introverts? Hardly any. Most of them are very extroverted because they do an enormous amount of communication. If they stay quiet and humble, in most cases, they don’t last long in the job. The same can be said about CEOs of large public companies, they are usually very vocal.”
Alexander says that this notion may be outdated. He comments: “‘Introversion’ can have negative connotations. I prefer ‘reserved’. Reserved people tend to talk less, listen more and therefore think more deeply before making decisions A lack of ego from the leader allows more open and honest conversations which in turn generates better outcomes for the business.
“In the 20th century, extroversion in leadership and management was seen as a positive trait due to the ability to inspire and motivate through speech. Nowadays, the best leaders can be either extroverts or introverts. It depends on the business situation, the culture one is trying to create, the lifecycle stage of the business among others but ultimately the best leaders need excellent self awareness and emotional intelligence. These are the key attributes of the best leaders.”
Haigh says: “Leadership models have certainly changed throughout the decades. There is nothing wrong per se with extroversion provided it is framed within a contemporary model of effective leadership – one that works for the organisation in this modern world. World no. 1 Leadership Thinkers puts it this way – “To be successful in tomorrow’s world, leaders will have to embrace global thinking, cross-cultural diversity, understand rapidly changing technology, rely more on collaborations & be facilitators rather than experts”. Note he doesn’t say dictator – he says facilitator!”
Christopher Salem, Business Executive Coach, comments: “Leaders who are introverted make out to be better listeners for feedback, more productive, and build stronger loyalty to others. They both are important and each type of person brings both strengths and weaknesses to different situations. Whether you identify as an introvert or an extrovert, how you deal with situations is what matters in the workplace. Both introverts and extroverts can bring certain key leadership characteristics to the table.”
Who makes the best leader, an introvert or extrovert?
Mills says: “Effective, creative leaders are often creatures of opposites, with those opposites frequently at war with each other: self-confidence vs self-doubt; a thirst for company to build energy and creativity through engagement with others, vs the need to be solitary and quiet, more thoughtful and reflective. The best leaders are emotionally intelligent and self-aware enough to know how to manage those opposites to best effect – able to deploy a range of behaviours, as occasions/situations require.”
“Good leaders know when to rally the troops, when to push, when to sit back, when to support, when to challenge. They know when they need to be up on stage, galvanising teams to action. But they also know when to shut up, keep quiet and let others lead. When we explore leadership, we need to move away from the binary, and towards a more nuanced understanding of the complexities that underpin effective leadership. Maybe “Non Binary Leadership” is the new thing….?”
Despite feeling that introverts make a more natural leader, Zalatoris echoes that there are some introvert qualities that lend itself well to leadership. He says: “Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, and I’m sure there are a lot of leaders who are extroverted. In my opinion, introverted leaders do have some specific strengths, for example they are usually calmer and they most likely think about their words and actions longer than extroverts, and sometimes that could lead to better decisions or better atmosphere at work. While extroverts might want to just get things done quickly, talk to everyone involved about the situation of concern fast, and move on to something else.”
While Haigh puts the strength of introverts down to emotional intelligence. He comments: “The best leaders have sufficient emotional intelligence to appreciate that what matters is HOW they communicate as well as WHAT they communicate. The ongoing demands of leadership require an irresistible mix of key characteristics including connecting with others, setting the tone and leading through vision-setting, focus, empowerment, direction, harmony and servanthood. In other words, I believe that the best leaders are able to balance and harness both introversion and extraversion to maximise the risk, reputation and rewards of their organisation.”