Most people imagine a successful leader as fast-acting and larger-than-life. In other words, an extrovert. Our Western culture naturally assumes that leaders must be extroverted “men of action.”
Marti Olsen Laney, doctor of psychology and author of The Introvert Advantage reports that 75% of the world’s population is extroverted. So, the odds are good that many leaders are extroverted. But, it’s not just their sheer numerical advantage that casts extroverts in the leading role.
In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts. Introverts are to extroverts what American women were to men in the 1950s — second-class citizens with gigantic amounts of untapped talent.
This inherent bias in favor of extroverted behavior pervades all aspects of our culture, including the political and business realms. But as Cook explains, introverts have a great deal to offer. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms it.
The study’s authors listened to conference calls, analyzing the linguistic patterns of 119 CEOs — 28 from tech firms and 91 from public firms. The initial findings suggest that reserved CEOs are connected, in some way, to a stronger bottom line.
Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D. and author of The Introverted Leader reports in an article for Forbes that 40% of executives consider themselves to be introverted. That’s a pretty strong representation considering introverts only make up 25% of the population at large. Clearly, introverted leaders must be doing something right.
So what’s their secret to success?
We looked closely at 5 highly successful introverted leaders, seeking lessons and actionable advice that you can implement today.
Topping our list of impressive introverted leaders is the investment guru, billionaire, philanthropist Warren Buffett. Known as the “Oracle of Omaha,” Buffett is one of the world’s richest men and a respected financial leader.
Behind the legend and hype, Buffett’s introversion is an indelible part of who he is – presenting both strengths and challenges to his eventual rise to success. The most valuable of those strengths may very well be Buffet’s ability to comprehend the abstract. Andy Hinds, in his article “Warren Buffett: The World’s Richest Introvert,” shares:
As Buffett explains in the Bloomberg documentary, his success is partially due to making concrete sense of the abstract: “If you look at the market as buying pieces of businesses, you will be able to see when the market is wrong.”
By peering through the numbers to the underlying reality, Buffett has been able to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and consistently outperform the market.
A 2012 study by Randy Buckner, a Harvard psychologist, revealed that introverts consistently show a thicker concentration of gray matter than their extroverted counterparts in areas of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that control decision-making and abstract thought. Buffett’s ability to master abstract concepts – like the stock market – is likely linked to his natural introversion.
In that sense, Buffett’s introversion served his career incredibly well. However, some of his introverted traits presented him with obstacles to overcome. Buffet shares in an interview,
I had the intellect for business, but not the persona… I had to learn to communicate with people better, particularly in groups. I just couldn’t go through life being terrified to speak in public.
Buffett tackled his problem head-on. He attended Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People seminars. As Andy Hines explained it,
…he did what any methodical, analytical, and motivated introvert would do—researched the problem and studied his way out of it.
Today Warren Buffet is a well-known public figure who speaks confidently and comfortably in appearances on television and before large live audiences.
What You Can Do: Develop your public speaking skills. You can start by reading these 10 Public Speaking Tips from Quiet Revolution’s Susan Cain. Follow up by looking for public speaking courses near you.
Introverts are known for happily spending time in their own inner world rather than interacting with the world around them. World-renowned author (and leader of Pottermore Ltd. and charitable organization Lumos) J.K. Rowling attributes her greatest creation – Harry Potter – to her willingness to spend time alone with her thoughts. Rowling explains that Harry was born while she was trapped on a delayed train:
I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.
Creativity often seems to come from a deep connection with our inner world. Underneath the surface are sparks of imagination, waiting to ignite. Because we do our best work in solitude, creative introverts may be less reliant on established norms and more able to see and hear new things.
J.K. Rowling has an undeniably deep well of creativity. Perhaps she’s plumbed its depths so successfully because of her self-professed introversion. But, before Rowling’s Sorcerer’s Stone made her millions, her introversion presented her with an obstacle to overcome.
Between the first euphoric brainstorm on the train and actually publishing the first Harry Potter manuscript, a lot of life happened. Rowling lost her mother, moved to Portugal, and began (and ended) a marriage that left her with a daughter to raise on her own. All of this lead to a rather understandable state of depression.
But, Rowling’s introversion may have actually predisposed her to the depression she experienced at that time. Depression symptoms are more common among introverts than among extroverts or those who fall in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum. This study links introversion with both social anxiety and depression.
So, how did Rowling power through?
She focused on her work. In her 2008 commencement address at Harvard University she shared:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.
Rowling’s laser-like focus allowed her to persevere in the face of outside obstacles as well as overcome her own internal struggles. Her focus and work-ethic (coupled with her creativity) lead her to create some of the most cherished books of all time; and, in doing so, transform her life.
What You Can Do: When life gets you down, use your tremendous focus to work through the tough times. Devote your time and energy to a cause that matters to you.
Apple Co-founder and introvert Steve Wozniak, like Rowling, understands the value of working alone. In his biography, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon he shares:
Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone.
It’s much easier for an author (like Rowling) to say “I work alone”; because authors are solely responsible for writing their manuscripts. But, the world of business is widely accepted as a group sport. And, you’re going to have to interact with your co-workers at some point.
Wozniak was able to capitalize on his introverted strength of secluding himself and working alone. But, Apple, as the company we know today, would not exist if Wozniak had truly worked alone. He may have done his inventing in seclusion, but he founded Apple with Steve Jobs – an extrovert.
Wozniak had the self-awareness (another trait introverts commonly excel at) to realize that he would be well served by partnering with someone who possessed strengths to balance his own weaknesses. Partnering with Jobs enabled Wozniak to lead vicariously and jointly through Jobs’ more public presence.
Business is about balance. It’s about ensuring the contribution of everyone with something to give is maximized. Introverts are as important to your business as extroverts. And partnerships are better than lone ventures—for everyone involved.
Wozniak and Jobs found a balance that worked for them – and together they defined our technological age.
What You Can Do: Find a partner to balance your business weaknesses. Introverts work best in one-on-one interactions or in small groups. Working with a trusted partner who can be the yin to your yang will be more comfortable and efficient than trying to be something you’re not.
The President of the United States is often called “Leader of the Free World.” Until recently, that man was Barack Obama… An introvert.
While President Obama was often criticized for acting superior or aloof (critiques that are often directed toward introverts), he was also known for his thoughtfulness and diplomacy. Columnist David Brooks was quoted as saying,
Being led by Barack Obama is like being trumpeted into battle by Miles Davis. He makes you want to sit down and discern.
Brooks also pointed out Obama’s ability to see problems from many vantage points, and a willingness to delegate – welcoming the contributions of others. Thoughtfulness, diplomacy, and empathy are all common traits of introverts. Marti Olsen Laney explains:
Many introverts see the bigger picture of how we are all interconnected, so they are concerned about how their actions affect others.
It’s hard to think of a role with a greater impact on others than the presidency of the United States. Obama’s introversion presented him with quite a number of skills that served his presidency well. But there is one aspect of the presidency that is in direct opposition to every introvert’s ability to thrive – the constant demand for attention.
Introversion is, at its most fundamental level, defined by the way the introvert’s energy is derived. While extroverts gain energy from social interactions, introverts expend energy on social interactions. They must spend time alone in order to recharge before they are able to socially engage again.
So how was President Obama able to navigate 8 years in the White House amidst constant political and social demands?
He built time into every day to work alone. Each evening after sharing dinner with his family at 6:30 pm, he would retire to his private office in the White House residence for 4-5 hours of work in solitude. This time was his window to recover from the day’s social demands and get caught up on work that required his full attention.
What You Can Do: Prioritize and schedule consistent time alone – to work or just replenish your energy. Solitude is necessary for both your mental health and your productivity! Don’t leave this important part of your day to chance. Put it on your calendar.
Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the world’s largest private charitable organization), is a household name. He led our world into the age of the home computer and continues to influence the world today through the Gates Foundations’ charitable work.
He is also an introvert.
Gates described his experience as an introverted business leader in ABC’s “A Q&A Audience with Bill Gates.” He succinctly addresses both the pros and cons of introversion as he has experienced them. Here’s how Gates recommends capitalizing on the strengths of an introvert:
If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert, which might be, say, being willing to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area…
Gates is actually referencing more than one introvert strength – the willingness to spend time alone pondering a problem and introverts’ enjoyment of tackling complex, detailed problems. In Olsen Laney’s chapter on introverts in the workplace she confirms Gates’ analysis; pointing out that introverts are noted for their ability to tackle complex, detailed problems in the workplace and are content to work in solitude (preferably with no interruptions).
Gates goes on to point out where his introversion fell short as an entrepreneur:
Then, if you come up with something, if you want to hire people, get them excited, build a company around that idea, you better learn what extroverts do… and tap into both sets of skills in order to have a company that thrives both as in deep thinking and building teams and going out into the world to sell those ideas.
Gates acknowledges that building excitement and self-promotion are not the natural domain of the introvert. But, they are necessary to get a new business off the ground. Gates’ solution? Learn to imitate extroverted behavior so that you can be the cheerleader your great idea needs.
This is, of course, easier said than done. An person is an introvert as the result of their brain chemistry and physical neural pathways. This is not something that you can completely change; but, an introvert can learn adaptive behaviors. Check out these 7 Tips on How to Love Networking by Susan Cain of Quiet Revolution.
What You Can Do: Learn to network effectively. Brilliant business ideas can’t thrive unless you can share them with the world.
They say still waters run deep. This is certainly true of the five introverted leaders we’ve visited today. And, we’ve only skimmed the surface of the things we can learn from them – and other introverted leaders. But they’ve given us plenty to ponder and plenty to do.
- Develop your public speaking skills.
- Focus on meaningful work to power through tough times.
- Work with a partner who balances your business weaknesses.
- Schedule your quiet time to recharge every day.
- Strengthen your networking skills.
Meet me back here once you’ve mastered these techniques. But for now, I’m heading out. I need some alone time.
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