In praise of introverts: leadership of a different stripe

By FCT

It’s always the quiet ones.

The bright, charismatic folks tend to dominate the dinner parties and the brainstorming sessions and, well, most of the media we’re exposed to. But consider this: if every team was comprised of only extroverts, sucking up all that energy in the room, all the time, who would ever be heard amidst all the white noise?

It’s not harsh to suggest active listening was practically invented for extroverts; some extroverts seem so keen to continually move on to the next big thing…as long as it’s their big thing. Worse still, the introvert stereotype holds that introverts are shy, distant and a bit cool, in the not-so-great sense of cool: difficult to reach and not excited about much.

But this is more than just about having a voice at a business meeting table. Introverts’ ability to sit with the data and let it percolate is invaluable: innovative options aren’t always straight from the hip; the truly inventive often isn’t a blinding insight but rather stems from simply sitting with an idea. As the wonderful American painter Georgia O’Keeffe observed, “To see takes time.”

In fact, some of the most charismatic people are introverts — especially in the sense that introverts make canny change agents. They’re natively good one-on-one, good at mobilizing support and activating a win, one vote at a time, on the “down-low.” Due diligence? Give me an introvert every time, hands down.

The bump, of course, is that introverts risk getting lost in the sauce; many senior management people aren’t necessarily great at polling everyone’s opinion. The excuse? There’s no time. What this boils down to is a failure of inclusivity, which assumes that because someone isn’t speaking they have nothing to say.

This is a kind of intellectual blindness, perhaps even arrogance, because truly sustainable solutions are by their very nature inclusive.

Introverts tend to be far more inclusive, no small skill for building a power base. Simply vetting an idea across a team, in private, quietly, is often a devastatingly effective means of building consensus. Tact is a woefully underestimated quality and introverts tend to have tact and in spades.

All that to say, no one is 100% extrovert nor ever 100% introvert. Each of us is a hybrid, living our  emotional lives on the introvert/extrovert continuum, expressing ourselves as we reckon the context allows. We are—all of us—living our own secret inner lives, each in our own way. The action-addicted extrovert who couldn’t use the insights of an introvert to identify the opportunity right before him or her hasn’t yet been born.

The emotional intelligence and emotional “peripheral vision” of an introvert has more than once saved an extrovert’s bacon.

For more, catch Susan Cain’s wonderful TED talk, The Power of Introverts, which hinges on the beautiful complementary notion of an introvert/extrovert yin/yang. It’s well worth a listen, as is her Google speak on “Quiet,” her bestselling book on (and for) introverts.

How would you classify your organization’s approach to innovation? Let us know how your team strikes a balance between introvert and extrovert qualities by commenting below.

Categories: EXPERT/ease