There are many prevailing misconceptions about leadership -- one of which is that all truly effective leaders are natural extroverts. They command attention when they step into a room, they never doubt themselves, and they are sociable creatures through and through. In reality, this is not the case. There is no set way to lead. There are a great many leadership styles, and each one will bring something new to the table. So while it's true that an introvert's style and outlook might be different, this doesn't mean they won't inspire their team to excel and perform.
It's been shown that approximately 70 percent of CEOs have introverted personalities. We can see famous examples in Larry Page and Bill Gates. These men became effective leaders because of, rather than in spite of, their introverted nature. In fact, research from the Harvard Business Review has shown that introverts are more effective leaders in unpredictable times, helping companies achieve long-term success.
What Exactly Is an Introvert?
There exists a degree of confusion about what it really means to be an introvert. When you picture an introverted leader, you might at first imagine someone shy and retiring, perhaps even antisocial. But being timid and being introverted are not one and the same. Despite prevailing stereotypes, an introvert can certainly be confident and conversational -- the difference is that these individuals need more alone time than extroverts. While ougoing people generally leave a crowd of people buzzing with energy, such a situation is likely to emotionally drain an introvert, who needs time alone to recharge, reflect and internalize information.
This is where the problem often comes in for introverts: Leadership requires a lot of communication and interaction in the form of one-on-ones and large meetings. This can leave an introvert feeling frustrated and worn out. However, by setting clear boundaries and expectations, such leaders can strike a healthy balance that accounts for quality alone time.
Why Introverts Make Good Leaders
Introverts are born with certain natural strengths that set them apart from extroverts in notable ways. These strengths allow them to flourish as managers:
1. Introverts Are Insightful and Build Meaningful Connections
Introverts tend to be blessed with natural observation skills. They are also good listeners, which allows them to build meaningful and authentic connections. This is useful when it comes to leading a modern workforce, as it's increasingly becoming clear that employees want to have a strong relationship with their managers. Companies are responding by adapting their performance-management systems, replacing the dreaded annual appraisal with more frequent performance discussions. Introverted managers can use these one-to-one meetings as an opportunity to connect with and motivate their employees.
2. Introverted Managers Are Motivated by Productivity
Interestingly, the reward systems of our brains are wired differently depending on whether we are introverted or extroverted. Typically, extroverts have reward systems triggered by recognition and personal advancement, while introverts gain satisfaction from high-quality work and productivity -- a clear advantage when it comes to leadership. An extrovert tends to thrive on glory, while an introvert receives satisfaction from improving and inspiring others to perform.
3. Introverted Managers Are Less Likely to Make Rash Decision
The introverted brain differs from its extrovert counterpart in more ways than one -- it's been shown that introverts have thicker gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for abstract thought and decision making. In short, this means an introverted manager will contemplate a problem, give it extensive thought, reflection and consideration, and come up with a creative solution. Rather than making snap decisions, an introverted manager is likely to come up with an innovative solution and a solid plan of action.
4. Introverts Aren't Easily Distracted
If you've ever seen an introvert really get into "the zone," you'll know that they have a talent for tuning out noise, chaos and distractions. The ability to remain calm and to focus and persevere in tumultuous times is certainly a desirable trait for a company leader. In fact, tranquility has often been named an important leadership trait that stands to improve the workplace for everyone.
Tips on How to Succeed as an Introverted Manager
Your introverted leadership style could certainly give your company a competitive edge, but you need to know how to manage in a way that plays to your strengths. Leading in much the same way as an extrovert will only cause you to feel worn out and frustrated. Below are a few tried and tested ways of leading as an introvert.
1. Hold Regular One-on-One Performance-Coaching Sessions
To get to know your employees and really engage them, you should consider having regular performance-coaching conversations. Get to know what motivates them. Learn their strengths and their weaknesses and find out where they want to be in their careers in five years' time. You can also take this opportunity to discuss company objectives while explaining the role each employee plays with regards to achieving them. This will give your staff a sense of purpose and belonging, and it will also show them that you are an authentic leader passionate about the company and the work you do.
2. Take Some Time to Recharge
Open-door policies are great, but if a near-constant flow of people in and out of your office is leaving you flustered and exhausted, it's perfectly fine to draw some boundaries. In fact, doing so will make you a more efficient leader in the long term. You'll need to find the right balance between availability and respect for your own needs. You might consider a virtual open-door policy -- notifications on collaboration-software solutions such as Slack might be less draining for you than spontaneous face-to-face chats.
3. Have Meetings-Free Days
These days, many companies are experimenting with concepts such as "Meetings-Free Wednesdays." Meetings can be great opportunities to collaborate, come up with creative solutions and discuss pressing company concerns. Equally, they can be a time sink. This is especially true when you consider the time taken to get to and from meetings and the practical work that isn't being done when you're all sitting in a room. Constant meetings can be even more draining for introverts -- introverts need dedicated time to internalize information. To cope, you should consider spacing meetings out or incorporating "meeting-free" work days, which will allow you to focus on the work at hand
4. Tackle Confrontations Head-On
Introverts might not like conflict as a rule, but it's important to address conflict in the workplace to stop it from escalating and causing serious performance issues. Whether it's a conflict between two or more employees or a conflict between you and a problem employee, you shouldn't shy away from speaking out. Confrontation might make you uncomfortable, but nipping these issues in the bud will be better than waiting until the situation gets worse.
5. Lead from Behind
Give yourself permission to quietly and conscientiously direct from behind, as Nelson Mandela once proposed. Mandela viewed leadership as a collective activity, where the manager cultivates a setting that encourages others to step up and lead. It's important not to confuse displays of assertiveness with leadership. You might not get all of the glory, but you will get the satisfaction of knowing you have equipped a team with all the tools and knowledge they need to perform well. Your leadership style is more likely to be collaborative and cooperative -- you don't need to command and micromanage to get great results.
6. Challenge Yourself
You might have heard that great leaders challenge themselves -- this tends to be true, as such leaders are dedicated to continuous and persistent self-improvement. Though you should accept your introverted nature and work with your strengths, it's important to occasionally step outside your comfort zone. You're an introvert -- that doesn't mean you can't be outgoing and assertive when you need to be. This might be a tricky balancing act, but if you manage to pull it off, you'll be perfectly positioned to motivate and engage your dedicated workforce.
Stuart Hearn is CEO and founder of Clear Review. As a performance-management expert, he works with hundreds of companies to improve communication, engagement levels and overall company productivity.