To some she’s the woman who has (or had?) it all. To others she’s the CEO who outlawed working from home, and failed to deliver the promised reversal of Yahoo’s fortunes. But while views on Marissa Mayer’s performance at work remain polarised, there’s slightly more agreement on her personality and leadership style.
Mayer is variously described as shy, socially awkward, and geeky. She is often quoted as saying that she’s an introvert. Not the most obvious recommendation for such a high-profile executive, perhaps, but certainly an improvement on her recollections of being “painfully shy” as a child.
Leaving your comfort zone
Mayer’s introversion is often presented as a barrier that she pushes herself to overcome, both socially and in the office. In an interview with Vogue in 2013, she described how, for the first 15 minutes of any party (even one she is hosting), she wants to leave. But she makes herself stay, promising herself that if she’s still “having a terrible time” after a fixed amount of time, she can leave.
It’s a neat little anecdote (although some have claimed it’s a misrepresentation of Mayer’s personality). But, whether or not we believe its candour, what does it tell us about introverts more generally?
Well, apart from revealing that you don’t have to be gregarious to be a great leader, it tells us that an introverted personality is something to be overcome. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describes, there is “a shared bias in our society” against it.
Roisín Berry, a self-employed illustrator, agrees: “I would definitely say I’m an introvert. I don’t think it holds me back, but I often get the impression that other people are surprised when I tell them I run my own business. Not because they don’t think I’m capable, but because they think I’m too quiet, too shy.”
Shy or introverted?
Cain holds that shyness and introversion are not the same thing: “Shyness is the fear of negative judgment, and introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments.” She believes that we only link the two because we have the same bias against both traits. She notes: “Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable, and even smarter than slow ones.”
Roisín’s experience supports this. “I can recall meetings with clients who have told me ‘not to be afraid’ of asking questions or speaking up,” she says. “It’s not that I’ve been afraid to speak; I’ve just been listening, taking in information but their perception is that I must be too shy to talk, just because I’m not trying to shout over the top of them all the time.”
Software giant Bill Gates is described by Cain as “an introvert, but not shy”. But, she adds, he’s also “outspoken” and “unphased” when it comes to business. It seems to be a successful combination; indeed, Gates once said: “I think introverts can do quite well”.
And Bill Gates is not alone. It has been reported that around 40 per cent of executives are introverts; there are clearly plenty of great leaders out there who don’t fit the stereotypical leadership qualities of ‘assertive’ and ‘extroverted’.
What makes introverts good leaders?
Slowly but surely, introverts are getting a better press as a wider range of leadership qualities are recognised. Peter Corijn, CMO at Imperial Tobacco, identifies a more ‘humble’ style – seen in “people who believe that the institution is more important than them as individuals”. These people are likely to be those with a more introverted personality.
It is widely accepted that introverts are better listeners, and better at staying focused. According to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, these qualities mean that introverts can be better leaders than extraverts. She says introverted leaders tend to be better team players, too. Importantly, though, she believes that leaders must adapt their style to the type of group they are leading: “With proactive employees, leaders need to be receptive to the team’s ideas; with a more passive team, leaders need to act more demonstratively and set a clear direction.”
The power of the passive
Civil rights activist Rosa Parks proved that in some cases, an introverted approach can have an even bigger impact than an extroverted one might. Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Alabama in 1955. Her quiet, confident resistance changed the course of American history. Clearly, effective protest doesn’t have to be delivered loudly. (Appropriately enough, Rosa Parks’ memoir was called Quiet Strength.)
So, can introversion really be an obstacle?
Marissa Mayer’s leadership style and management decisions have certainly been roundly criticised – but whatever the issues have been at Yahoo, there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that introversion was one of them. Being an introvert, it appears, is unlikely to be an obstacle if you don’t see it as one.