Can introverts be successful leaders?

Introverts might not seem the obvious choice for a leadership role, but they are just as capable as leaders as their extroverted counterparts – even though new research shows that they’re less likely to apply for leadership positions.

According to the study from Queensland University of Technology, introverts think that they would be worried and distressed in leadership situations. They looked at 184 business students, measuring their extraversion (the personality trait associated with being outgoing and social that determines whether someone is an extrovert or introvert) using a personality questionnaire and observed their leadership behaviour in a small group activity.

Before the activity, students were asked to forecast what emotions they would experience during it – choosing from a list of positive and negative statements (for example, “I will feel excited”, or “I will feel upset”).

The researchers found that how introverts think they will feel in a leadership position plays a powerful role in explaining why introverts struggle to emerge as leaders. “When participants thought they would experience negative emotions (i.e. fear, worry or distress) these became strong psychological barriers to acting like a leader,” they explain. “Introverts were more likely to think they’d feel these negative emotions than extraverts.

“The introverts in our study also felt like they would feel less positive emotions in a leadership position (i.e. excitement, interest). However, these thoughts about positive emotions were not as important as negative emotions in accounting for leadership behaviour in participants.”

However, the researchers go on to point out that just because introverts don’t expect themselves to succeed in leadership positions does not mean that they won’t. Recently, there has been a surge in conversation surrounding introversion and their value to various parts of business and society as a whole.

Author Susan Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts in 2012 went viral and now has over 17.5 million views. She says: “When it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful, much less likely to take outsize risks – which is something we might all favour nowadays. And interesting research by Adam Grant at the Wharton School has found that introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes than extroverts do, because when they are managing proactive employees, they're much more likely to let those employees run with their ideas, whereas an extrovert can, quite unwittingly, get so excited about things that they're putting their own stamp on things, and other people's ideas might not as easily then bubble up to the surface.”

Cain also suggests that many transformative leaders throughout history were introverts, naming Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Gandhi among them – “all these people described themselves as quiet and soft-spoken and even shy. And they all took the spotlight, even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to,” she says. “And this turns out to have a special power all its own, because people could feel that these leaders were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others and not out of the pleasure of being looked at; they were there because they had no choice, because they were driven to do what they thought was right.”

The question, then, remains: how could introverts change business if they took the chance to apply for leadership roles?

Pete O’Connor and Andrew Spark, the authors of the Queensland University of Technology study conclude: “There are many situations whereby introverts will make good leaders and it seems that introverts have the potential to emerge as leaders in those situations. So the challenge is not making introverts more like extroverts, but rather assisting introverts to be more confident about their own leadership capability.”

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