There are all kinds of stereotypes in business, including that of chief executives. Some may instantly conjure the image of highly successful, gregarious and confident leaders, who worked their way up the corporate ladder through a great deal of networking and self-promotion. In other words, executives that are extroverts.
But there is plenty of evidence that introverts can be highly effective in business leadership. A 2017 story by Harvard Business Review reported on the CEO Genome Project, a 10-year study by management consulting firm ghSMART, which aimed to “identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs.”
“Our findings challenged many widely held assumptions,” the authors wrote. “For example, our analysis revealed that while boards often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors.”
Another Harvard Business Review story by Adam Grant, Francesca Gino and David A. Hofmann points out that extroverted leaders “tend to command the center of attention and take over discussions.” Introverts can be more effective, they write, “particularly when workers are proactive, offering ideas for improving the business. Such behavior can make extroverted leaders feel threatened. In contrast, introverted leaders tend to listen more carefully and show greater receptivity to suggestions, making them more effective leaders of vocal teams.”
Here’s a look at some positive attributes of introverted leaders that can benefit a business.
Introverts can take a methodical approach to business scenarios. That’s not to say that extroverts take wild swings at every opportunity, but the two personality styles can utilize different tactics when it comes to risk. Samantha Cole uses Warren Buffett as an example in a story for Fast Company. She quotes Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, who calls Buffett “a classic example of an introvert taking careful, well-calibrated risks.”
Cole includes a Buffett quote from a letter to investors to illustrate the point: “Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.”
Executive coach and author Jeff Boss echoes these thoughts in a story for Entrepreneur: “Unlike their extroverted counterparts who are more sensitive to rewards, which explains why extroverts are more predisposed to risk-taking, introverts take a circumspect approach to chance. This is why you hear extroverts say things such as, ‘Let’s just do it!’ whereas introverts prefer to ask, ‘Are we sure this is the right thing to do?’”
Solitude isn’t necessarily a word associated with CEOs, who often have intense workloads that send them bouncing from meeting to meeting with few moments to spare. But introverts can thrive on taking time by themselves to contemplate issues and dream up ideas for business solutions. Bruna Martinuzzi explores this in a story for American Express’ OPEN Forum.
“They’re generally not afraid of solitude because they know it’s fruitful,” she explains. “It gives them opportunities for self-reflection, thinking, theorizing, observing, planning or imagining, not to mention reading, researching and writing. Our culture discourages time alone, but in our noisy world, with its many distractions, we can get an edge if we carve out some time for solitude. It helps to minimize distractions and aids in staying more focused. It improves our ability to think. Introverts can teach us a lot in that regard.”
Employee satisfaction can often be connected with the ability to be creative and work on projects that hold great interest. Writing for Forbes, Ryan Westwood explains that introverted CEOs can foster this kind of environment. He uses 3M’s William McKnight, who encouraged employee passion projects, as an example: “His philosophy, which 3M adopted in 1948, was to essentially hire good people and then get out of their way.”
“This same idea has worked in many tech companies today, including Google, which allows a Genius Hour for their employees,” Westwood writes. “This type of work environment works well for introverts because they are allowed the flexibility to get things done without a lot of oversight or hype.”
Overreactions are naturally a detriment for business leaders. Introverts can be less likely to lash out or panic in times of trouble, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the issues at hand. The way they project themselves to their employees in these scenarios can make a significant difference. As Martinuzzi writes in her OPEN Forum story, “The introvert’s even temper creates a peaceful atmosphere that engenders trust and safety for those around them.”
“Trust, in turn, helps us do business more effectively,” she says. “Staying stable and calm in all situations — cultivating equanimity and composure — are the hallmarks of introverts. These attitudes can radiate to others in the workplace, and especially to customers.”
This is an important skill for any executive. Good employees who feel that they are not being heard by the leadership team may start looking to leave, and find a company that will pay proper attention. Chris Myers, cofounder and CEO of BodeTree, writes about this in a story for Forbes, saying introverts can be “better equipped to listen and empathize with the people with whom they interact.”
“… It’s tempting and, frankly, much easier to take a given problem at face value and hammer home a simple solution,” he explains. “For example, a convenient response to a team member’s underperformance is to say that they simply need to ‘buck up and do the job.’ However, this approach can easily lead to a tense culture and high turnover. Instead, it’s better to listen and empathize with the individuals in question. Many times, issues like underperformance stem from a lack of communication, unclear goals, or scenarios outside of a person’s control. While this isn’t always the case, good leaders explore all options before jumping to such a conclusion.”
Business leaders who have narcissistic tendencies may find success, but a self-absorbed approach won’t score many points with employees. Introverts can naturally reject such arrogance in favor of a more humble outlook. In Boss’ story for Entrepreneur, he notes that “introverts tend to have an accurate sense of their abilities and achievements (not to be confused with underestimated).”
“Humility entails the ability to acknowledge mistakes, imperfections, knowledge gaps and limitations — all key ingredients for getting ahead in business and life,” he explains. “Being humble also indicates an openness to hear new ideas or receive contradictory information.”