A quick look at the mainstream business press these days will yield plenty of evidence of what’s become a popular debate: which personality type makes for better leaders — introverts or extroverts?
Some would suggest that the answer is easy. Because of the front-facing culture of global business, which demands that leaders pair their intellect and expertise with the ability to deliver a visible and lively external brand, it appears as if the extrovert has a clear advantage.
As convention has it, people who are more extroverted have more outgoing personalities, are able to cultivate and manage strong external business relationships and revel in hyper-communication and media attention. They feed off other people, and these days, people are everywhere.
But lately some are arguing otherwise — that the introvert, in actuality, is the better leader for today’s business climate. A recent article in Time magazine by Bryan Walsh, “The Upside of Being an Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated),” spoke more broadly on the topic, save for a small passage suggesting “introverts are better at listening ... and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative.”
Meanwhile, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book by former Wall Street attorney Susan Cain published in January, says that U.S. culture is unfairly dominated by the “extrovert ideal” and that introversion shouldn’t be shunned but encouraged by parents, teachers and employers.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, recently made the case for introverts in an article in Psychology Today. To her, introverts make for better leaders for a simple reason: “They’re more likely to listen and pay attention to what other people are saying.”
In an era of great noise, it’s these quiet leaders who are more open to the ideas of others who will thrive. “They tend to be a little more attuned to the inner life,” Whitbourne said. Introverted leaders are also more reflective, a trait that enables some to be able to better evaluate business situations and think more critically and clearly.
This isn’t to say that leaders who are more extroverted aren’t good listeners, or that introverts are not personable, said David Belle-Isle, CEO and founder of InColor Insight, a leadership development and corporate learning consultancy. “Leaders can learn new behaviors based on their desire to be effective and improve performance,” he said. In other words, traits that are often paired with introversion and extroversion are adaptable and flexible, depending on the individual.
Whitbourne also offered a bit of caution for CLOs looking to evaluate high potentials based on personality type: Both introversion and extroversion are complicated creatures, she said. Neither is defined in absolute terms. Personalities can change over time.
The team working under that leader is also important. According to Whitbourne, introverted leaders may work better when steering teams of self-motivated people — those who are more likely to be productive with a quiet force pushing them. “They don’t need another loud, noisy person in the room,” she said. “They need someone who is going to bring out their best skills.”
Extroverted leaders might also work better with teams of self-reflecting, quietly strategizing introverts, Whitbourne said, though this framework is not necessarily absolute.
Both personality types may also have different learning styles, Belle-Isle said, something equally important for a CLO to consider when drafting leadership development programs. Someone with more extroverted tendencies might learn better through experience, role-modeling and observing others. “Their learning style and their ability to learn is based on how they engage in the outside world,” Belle-Isle said.
Introverts, on the other hand, might learn better in an internal world. “They learn through abstract reasoning and repetition,” Belle-Isle said. “The learning officer needs to be aware of who it is that they are assigning learning experiences for.”
Erv Lessel, director of human capital at Deloitte Consulting LLP and a former major general in the U.S. Air Force, offered that, to a certain degree, a CLO might be able to assign different leadership development approaches to each personality type. “The alignments would be introvert with a competency (task oriented) based leadership style and extrovert with a relationship (people oriented) leadership style,” he wrote in an email.
Still, Lessel, like Whitbourne and Belle-Isle, cautioned against relying on absolutes: “All of this assumes that just because a leader is an introvert that they don’t have people skills and that a leader who is an extrovert has strong people skills. This may not be the case.”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.