Introvert Leaders: Unexpected and Possibly Perfect

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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What are the qualities of introverted leaders? How do they compare to the strengths and weaknesses of extroverted leaders?

Introvert leaders are less expected than extroverted ones. In American society, charisma is prized in leaders. However, in some situations, a different type of leadership is best.

Keep reading for more about introvert leaders and what they can offer.

Comparing Extrovert and Introvert Leaders

Introvert leaders perform better than extroverted leaders in certain circumstances, according to research by Wharton School professor Adam Grant. 

In one study, he and his colleagues analyzed profits of one of the largest pizza chains in the U.S. and found that: 1) stores with extroverted leaders delivered 16% higher profits when employees were passive and did what they were told, and 2) stores with introvert leaders delivered 14% higher profits over the stores led by extroverts when employees proactively worked to improve procedures.

In a second study in which teams of college students competed to fold the most t-shirts, the teams with introvert leaders were more effective when the team members were proactive and came up with a way to do the work faster. Teams led by extroverts were more effective when the teams passively followed the leader’s direction. 

Researchers concluded that introvert leaders are effective at leading proactive employees because they tend to listen and are more willing to implement suggestions as opposed to dominating the situation. 

Also, in the t-shirt folding study, the introvert-led teams reported they were motivated to work harder by the leader’s openness to their input. In contrast, extrovert leaders may be so focused on doing things their way that they don’t hear suggestions. However, extroverts also have the ability to inspire passive employees to perform better. 

Grant argues that it’s important for companies to have both listeners and talkers as leaders in order to maximize employee output.

Extroversion in Leaders Is Overrated

When you look at how businesses actually function, the Harvard Business School model of the charismatic, extrovert leader is overrated.

A Brigham Young study of 128 CEOs of major companies found that those viewed as charismatic didn’t perform any better than less-charismatic leaders, although they were paid more. Much of the time, leaders don’t actually need to be overly outgoing to be effective, one Harvard management professor conceded. Leaders communicate more often in small-group meetings, emails, and videos than by making presentations to large groups. Although big presentations are important—and leaders need presentation skills—they’re not daily requirements.

Many introverts have been outstanding leaders, including Charles Schwab, Bill Gates, Lou Gerstner of IBM, and Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes. 

Management expert Peter Drucker wrote that the most effective CEOs he encountered actually lacked charisma. Similarly, Good to Great author Jim Collins, who studied high-performing companies, found that the best CEOs were known for a combination of humility and determination rather than charisma. (Shortform note: Read our summary of Good to Great here.)

For example, CEO Darwin Smith of paper company Kimberly-Clark was shy and mild-mannered. However, despite opposition, he made the courageous decision to sell the paper mills producing coated paper and shift the company’s focus to consumer products. This ended up strengthening the company. Collins concluded that corporations don’t need outsized personalities—they need leaders who focus, not on stroking their egos, but on building the business.

A New Type of Leader?

Technology and the internet have created a new, non-face-to-face environment for communicating, in which introverts may excel as leaders. Social media platforms enable a form of leadership different from the Harvard Business School model.

For instance, introvert Craig Newmark has successfully connected millions of people through his online platform Craigslist. Besides being a place to exchange services, his website functions as a sort of public commons. It connected stranded people with help during Hurricane Katrina and helped people find rides during New York City’s 2005 transit strike. Newmark has written that his site has the ability to connect people “to fix the world.”

The online world lets introverts play a more social role than they’re uncomfortable with in person. Studies have shown that introverts are more likely than extroverts to provide personal facts about themselves online and enter into certain online discussions. In addition, they’re more likely to say they can express who they really are online. 

The online environment may yield better results for some activities by allowing introverts to communicate effectively without being overshadowed by more talkative types. For instance, consider how differently Harvard’s Subarctic Survival exercise might turn out if extrovert and introvert opinions got equal time. 

Introvert Leaders: Unexpected and Possibly Perfect

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Susan Cain's "Quiet: The Power of Introverts" at Shortform.

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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