From Adam Grant to Susan Cain: What introverted leadership looks like

The article is for all the introverts out there who have risen to a leadership position. Looking at your peers, you may intuitively notice as you look laterally and above you what the data show: 96% of leaders self-report as extroverts. You may be wondering if you can succeed and be effective as a leader, given your personality type. Let’s look at what at the science has to say.

First, can you fake it til you make it?

Your first course of action may be to consider, can I just act like an extrovert until I become one? The science of personality suggests that this would likely be an uphill battle. The Big 5 personality traits (which have more research backing than the Myers-Briggs framework) have been shown to have strong consistency over time, with only moderate changes over many years. The Extroversion/Introversion trait is highly stable; it can vary somewhat over time, but not significantly. So your best bet is to figure out how to play to your own strengths as an introvert.

The research summary that follows re-frames leadership from having “correct and incorrect” styles to “pros and cons” that pair with personality type. There is a way to play to your sweat spots and craft your environment for success.

The research

You may remember the best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can ́t Stop Talking. Authored by Wall Street lawyer turned author, Susan Cain, who took the reader through her seven years of aggregated research on the strengths that introverts wield and the cultural dynamics that they navigate. Adam Grant has recently brought back to the fore some of the key findings on what type of people introverts manage best. Below is a summary of the key points for business leaders to consider.

In Index Card Summary style, the three key lessons to keep in mind, and that I walk through below are:

1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people.

2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America.

3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in.

1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people

Cain and Grant both cite introverts as being uniquely good at leading initiative-takers. Their inclination to listen to others and lack of desire to dominate social situations makes introverts more likely to hear and implement suggestions. By encouraging the talents of their teams, they can more easily motivate them to be even more proactive. The challenge for introverts is to manage misguided or less proactive employees.

2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America

As Cain shared with Business Insider, "Extroverts are routinely chosen for leadership positions and introverts are looked over, even though introverts often deliver better outcomes. They're not perceived as leadership material." The modern American archetype of a leader is a talkative alpha who is comfortable in the spotlight - the more a person talks, the more attention they receive, and the more powerful they are perceived to be. The result is that introverts are seen as poor leaders by 65% of executive leadership. They also earn ~20% less and manage half as many people as extroverts, according to Truity Psychometrics.

3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in

Adam Grant posits that the dynamism of modern business environments makes proactive employees critical, and introverted leaders tend to encourage and cultivate such employees. The most effective teams are composed of a good mix of introverts and extroverts, and it is highly possible to create a symbiotic environment for both. Leadership can craft and distribute tasks based on people’s natural strengths and temperaments. For example, extroverts can more effectively manage information overload, high pressure, and multi-tasking, while introverts are better at solving complex problems through patience, clarifying, and persistence. Projects and their timelines can be crafted and distributed accordingly.

We need introverted leaders

Being an introvert does not make you a bad leader - in fact there are many strengths you can play to. The challenge is that you won’t be able to learn everything by example from your extroverted peers. Don’t focus on changing your personality - the science says this would be draining and would yield limited results. Your version of successful leadership will activate a more proactive workforce and enable you to tackle long-range problems.

To think of a classic introvert/extrovert duo, Bill Clinton and Al Gore immediately come to mind. One ascended to the presidency for 8 years, carried in part by his charisma. The other was perceived as dry and dispassionate on the campaign trail, but went on to be a pivotal leader in the modern climate change movement. Looking at Cain’s descriptions of personality characteristics, these aren’t surprising outcomes: perhaps Clinton is the action-oriented and rewards-sensitive extrovert, while Gore is the slower and more deliberate introvert, less attracted to wealth and fame. Which is a more effective leader? That, I would argue, is the wrong question.

Source: YouTube

Source: YouTube



The Index Card Summary of "Wait: the Art and Science of Delay"

There is a famous military mantra that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, thoughtfully unpacks the benefits of taking one’s time and the contexts in which it is most important.

The Index Card Summary

Partnoy’s key takeaways boil down to three points:

  1. We should wait as long as possible to act, to ensure we have the maximum possible information.

  2. To be able to wait as long as possible, you need to be able to execute quickly.

  3. Doing things quickly comes with a cost to quality, which you can mitigate by becoming and expert.

Partnoy provides the reasoning, methods, and frameworks for taking on the challenging task of slowing down to achieve better results.

1. Why wait?

Because it is optimal. Partnoy posits that humans are hardwired to react quickly, as part of our inbuilt fight or flight instincts. Modern society taps into this wiring, tempting us to react instantly to its many demands. Yet we are often better off resisting both our biology and our technology. Waiting as long as possible ensures that you have the maximum possible information available to inform your next decision.

2. Making time to wait means executing quickly

In the ideal world, you would spend much less time executing and re-executing. You would optimize outcomes by minimizing execution time. OODA is an effective framework for developing a strategy without reacting too hastily.

The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) framework requires the decision-maker to observe the changing environment and process the disorder occurring before deciding how to act. One can act fast without necessarily acting first. Act too quickly, and you may provoke a problem that would have otherwise gone away. Further, if you spend too much time acting (e.g. building a presentation), you have less time to observe (e.g. calibrate the actual project needs and goals).

3. To keep quality high during fast execution, become an expert

Novices and experts are two extremes on the experience spectrum. Whereas experts can act quickly based on the muscle memory of prior experience, novices may be better off not acting at all. For example, time pressure does not impact grandmaster chess players in the way it impacts novice chess players. Under time constraints, grandmasters make few mistakes whereas novices make many.

However, there are times when even experts should wait. Importantly, novel circumstance can still arise in one’s sphere of expertise. Medical professionals face this challenge often.

The considered take

Partnoy is one of the few voices in the modern world telling us to wait. We’re in an era of high-speed internet, one-click orders, two-day shipping, high-frequency trading….the list goes on. Partnoy counters our culture by making the case that waiting is optimal.

I appreciate that Partnoy makes the important distinction that artful delay and procrastination are not the same thing. This means that you need to define what “waiting as long as possible” means in your own context. In many businesses, on time is late and early is ontime. So, for example, waiting until the final hour to submit an application online, and then hitting a computer glitch, could leave you out of luck.

Partnoy also underscores that rushing when you are not an expert will not produce good results — making it all the more important to accurately assess where you are at in a skill set and allocate execution time accordingly. So how does one become an expert? A few ideas:

  1. Spend a lot of time thinking through how to do something in a deliberate manner, so that when the time arrives, you can execute quickly.

  2. Use checklists, which can force you to pause, be more systematic, and reduce errors. 

  3. Pursue deliberate practice so that you are trained in the skill you care about.

As Partnoy summed it up, the essence of modern intelligence may be knowing when to think and act quickly and when to think and act slowly.