“Can an introvert become a leader?”

by Andy Kaufman on October 27, 2011

Unquestionably the answer is “Yes!”

Last year CNN published an article entitled “Why introverts can be great leaders.” It offers up some solid research that backs up the article title and is worth the read.

I recently interviewed Jim Kouzes who is the co-author of classic leadership books such as The Leadership Challenge and Credibility (interviews are available for free at http://bit.ly/CredibilityPart1 and http://bit.ly/CredibilityPart2). In both books they present extensive research into what it takes to be an effective leader, including what followers want from their leaders.

So, what do followers want? The top 4 include a leader who is:

  • Honest
  • Forward-thinking
  • Inspiring
  • Competent

(Side note: it struck me that those are four qualities we don’t normally associate with politicians these days! But I digress….)

In that list, Inspiring might be the closest associated with extroversion. I asked Jim about that in the interview and he insisted that it does not require one to be extroverted. Granted, it’s difficult to inspire if you never leave your desk or spend time with people. But thinking that one must be extroverted to be inspiring exposes a myth about what we believe to be true about introverts.

One of my favorite interviews related to introversion was with Devora Zack, author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking (see http://bit.ly/DevoraZackCast for the discussion). I highly recommend the book for anyone who considers themselves an introvert and wants to grow in their ability to build relationships.

I’m currently preparing for an interview with Rob Cross, author of multiple books including The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations. Earlier this year he co-authored a piece for HBR on “A Smarter Way to Network.” There’s an insightful HBR audio interview available at http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2011/07/getting-networking-right.html. Rob’s research over 15 years shows that one’s success doesn’t come down to “She with the most relationships wins!” Rather, a more important factor is “bridging relationships”, those connections that bridge levels up, across, down, and outside the organization. Introverts can certainly build such relationships without worrying about quantity.

Further, Rob presents an intriguing finding. Success was even more impacted by the degree to which a person tends to energize those around them. This doesn’t have to be energizing in an extroversion sense, as in being a high-key cheerleader. Bob Sutton says it this way in his book Good Boss, Bad Boss. A key difference between a good boss and a bad boss is how you feel after you interact with them. Did they energize you or drain you? I can think of extroverts and introverts who land on both side of Sutton’s assertion.

Interestingly, Rob has found that “energizers” tend to pull (or attract): opportunities, talent, information for decisions, etc. De-energizers tend to repel those same things, which ultimately impacts one’s ability to lead and succeed.

As with most things in life, our ability to successfully lead isn’t as simple as one factor such as personality type (though how we’re wired can both give us a head start as well as hinder us). If I had to personally boil it down to one factor based on my experience coaching hundreds of executives it comes down to what Justin Menkes mentions in his book, Better Under Pressure: an individual’s sense of agency. In other words, if someone has a teachable spirit, a hunger and willingness to learn, and a sense that they have the ability to take action (as opposed to being a victim), they have great potential to lead others.

That has nothing to do with introversion or extroversion and much more about how they see themselves and their world.

Indeed, introverts can make great leaders.

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