Extrovert Leaders: Do They Have an Unfair Advantage?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Quiet: The Power of Introverts" by Susan Cain. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do most leaders share some common qualities? Are extrovert leaders more common than introvert leaders?

Extrovert leaders are more common than introverted ones in today’s society. A “culture of personality” creates a bias towards extroverts and favors leaders that are extroverted.

Read more about extrovert leaders.

Personality and Leadership

One hundred years after the advent of the culture of personality, we’ve elevated extroversion to hyper-extroversion and equated it with leadership. It permeates the self-improvement industry, business schools, corporate culture, and even churches. But charismatic leaders aren’t as effective as most people think—in some circumstances, introverted leaders may be more effective.

Today’s hyper-extrovert is personified by self-help guru Tony Robbins, whose high-energy workshops on building self-confidence (the $895 four-day entry-level session is called “Unleash the Power Within”) draw thousands. They culminate in a voluntary walk across hot coals.

Robbins has a “hyperthermic” or extreme extrovert temperament characterized by one psychiatrist as “exuberant, upbeat, over-energetic, and overconfident”—which are traits touted as assets in business, particularly sales. Indeed, Robbins is a salesman, constantly urging attendees at his sessions to buy additional higher-priced packages.

At first, the culture of personality urged people to develop an extrovert personality to stand out from competitors. Robbins’s message, however, is that extroversion not only ensures success but also makes you a better person. Selling yourself is a way of contributing to the world. In this view, what some might see as hucksterism is the ultimate in leadership.

Elevating Extrovert Leaders

Harvard Business School, which trains many nationally prominent business and political leaders, starts with a premise of hyper-extroversion. The curriculum forces students to be extrovert leaders, in keeping with the findings of a study that verbal ability and sociability are the most important determinants of success in a corporate culture.

Participation in learning teams or study groups is mandatory, as is class participation. Students who speak up frequently and forcefully are viewed as leaders or players. Because leaders in business must confidently make decisions on incomplete information, in Harvard’s view,  students must take positions and defend them forcefully regardless of how confident they are in the positions.

In fact, hyper-extroversion is central to many company cultures. As a manager at General Electric explained, you can’t have a casual conversation—everything you say and how you say it is a presentation. People try to look like extroverts, whether they are or not, which in terms of sociability can mean being sure to work out at the same health club as the CEO and drinking his favorite drink.

In essence, our culture continues to promote the same personal qualities as in the 1920s, except to a greater extreme. We have even stronger anti-anxiety drugs to help. For instance, in 2000, Paxil was marketed as a cure for social anxiety disorder. One ad showed a business executive, presumably with a boost from Paxil, concluding a deal. The caption was, “I can taste success.”

Extrovert Leaders in Church

Like Harvard Business School, many evangelical churches promote the Extrovert Ideal in both leaders and parishioners. They prize extroversion because they view the church’s mission as proselytizing, outreach, and community-building, which are social pursuits. They even associate extroversion with godliness.

For example, Saddleback Church in California, one of the largest evangelical churches in the country, is built on the culture of personality. Extroversion is a prerequisite for leadership and services and activities are built around social interaction: attendees are personally greeted and services are participative and boisterous. Members are urged to join a range of groups and activities targeted to various topics and interests, such as cooking and sports. Sharing one’s faith is part of practicing it.

However, this preference for extrovert leaders is off-putting to many potential leaders and members, according to Adam McHugh, an introvert and a Presbyterian minister who aims to make churches more comfortable for introverts. In his book, Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture, he argues that practicing one’s faith should involve listening as well as talking and that silent prayer and contemplation should have a larger place.

Extrovert Leaders: Do They Have an Unfair Advantage?

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Here's what you'll find in our full Quiet: The Power of Introverts summary:

  • How society overvalues extroverts
  • Why introverts' overlooked strengths are the key to greater success in work, school, and society
  • How extroversion caused the fall of Enron

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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