Matters Column

Introverts have traits that make them excellent leaders

November 7, 2014
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Some would suggest that a person must be an extrovert to be a good leader — that to be followed, a person must be heard clearly and frequently.

We often think highly effective leaders must be able to speak flawlessly and persuasively to crowds or mingle effortlessly at events with public officials and other executives to establish influence. Extroverts having knowledge, experience and ability are able to mobilize individuals to follow them when they step into the spotlight, but introverts often become excellent and highly respected leaders if they can overcome the tendency to hide or downplay their strengths.

During 25 years of promoting operational excellence and business sustainability while working at The Employers’ Association, which is celebrating 75 years of community service this year, I have met a number of leaders who are successful, universally admired and respected. Many of the better leaders have been more “introverted” than “extroverted” in their actions, communications and ways they influence those around them.

Though extroverts can often motivate individuals with ease and inspire them to do things they might not have otherwise considered, some extremely introverted individuals have become excellent leaders by exhibiting basic characteristics not typically associated with their more flamboyant peers. These tendencies include:

Introverts are often deliberate and measured in their response to situations. They are not slow or overly focused in their thinking processes — many process things quickly. Rather they typically consider the “pros and cons” of most decisions and formulate several alternative courses of action should their initial direction prove untenable. 

Introverts are not prone to bursts of temper or extreme reactions. They are thoughtful in how they sift through and process information, rarely acting until they have considered thoroughly what might happen should they act and what might have to be done to “undo” anything that might go wrong.

Introverts respond strategically to most situations rather than emotionally. They establish trust and confidence in those that choose to follow their lead because they place far less importance upon what others think than they do upon their results and personal satisfaction.

Introverts are typically highly analytical. Their “comfort in their own skin” helps them to become expert at finding their way through reams of data quickly and reaching the core of the matter. 

Introverts are decisive once they have charted a course. Subdued in words and actions, they spend more time thinking than acting. Any perceived delays in action are caused by the need to view issues from all sides rather than fear of failure or losing face.

Introverts are good listeners. They let others do most of the talking, then meld diverse suggestions into workable solutions. Introverts act on what they hear after filtering what will work from what will not so their recommendations are more likely to be accepted by the team rather than rejected as being top-down decisions.  

Introverts are naturally risk averse — a critical characteristic in avoiding potentially disastrous decisions. When we do things as they have always been done, we cannot expect to produce results that are different. The ramifications of intentionally changing a product, process or service must be anticipated with alternative responses developed should our worst nightmare come to fruition. Being risk averse helps to minimize nightmares but measured change is necessary for growth. We must take risk wisely when others depend on the decisions we make, for to remain as we are will prevent us from becoming what we could be.

Introverted leaders often become the voice of reason within any situation or environment. While an introvert’s voice is not typically loudest or most convincing, it often becomes most clearly heard and persuasive as it stands above the noise of a crowd. Influenced more by rationality than charisma — by self-confidence than the need for external validation — an introverted leader is “heard” because people know something reasonable is being said in a rational and thoughtful way.

Extroverts often become leaders through self-proclamation of their abilities and accomplishments. Some people prefer averting personal risk by following another’s suggestions or directions. They prefer acting on thoughts expressed loudly and convincingly, accepting them as being true, hiding behind the perceived protection of “it is not my fault” or “it was not my idea” should something fail. They avoid personal mistakes rather than learning from them, blindly following the path defined and developed by others.

The compliant actions and attitudes of others often help extroverts elevate themselves into leadership positions, but great leaders are elevated upon the shoulders of those able to see their strong internal values and understated personal characteristics.

Though introverts could become great leaders, they must be willing and able to leave their comfort zone. An introverted leader must be willing to stand up and speak in front of people, facilitate large and contentious meetings, and wade into interpersonal conflicts when their natural inclination might be to go home and read a book or be “an island” rather than a part of a larger society.

Introverted leaders are typically “drafted” by others to show the way because of the exceptional results their understated ways achieve. They rarely shine a light on their own accomplishments or seek recognition for what they do, preferring to bask in the glory their results produce.

Listening before acting, analyzing before deciding and determining direction only after considering the magnitude and ramifications of risk rather than only how to avoid it are characteristics of great leaders.

Perhaps more introverts should be encouraged and given the opportunity to lead. If actions truly speak louder than words, think of the opportunities, possibilities and potential their quiet and introspective demeanor might provide.

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids. 

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