Can an introverted president really lead a nation? An editorial in last weekend’s New York Times asks this question. It explored what extro- and introversion has to do with leadership, and determined that leaders needn’t be gregarious to be great.
With two introverted presidential candidates, it’s worth taking a look at what introversion really means, what Americans think about introverted leaders and how it actually impacts leadership.
American culture often equates introversion with unfriendliness, deception and hermit-like tendencies – no wonder Western culture seems to have a bias against them. Against this backdrop, Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, argues for the unique abilities of introverts based on a clarified definition of the term. She explains,
Introverts prefer less stimulating environments and tend to enjoy quiet concentration, listen more than they talk and think before they speak. Conversely, extroverts are energized by social situations and tend to be assertive multi-taskers who think out loud and on their feet.
It’s easy to identify an introvert’s leadership advantages by Cain’s definition. When it comes to achieving work-life balance, introverts know when it’s time to close the office door (or put in headphones) and recharge. For some, this means more original ideas and consistent productivity.
The leadership advantage also varies depending who is being led. With a quieter leadership style, introverts might have the edge in cross-cultural leadership, especially when leading in cultures where popularity does not always equal authority. Further, a new study argues that when it comes to leading proactive people, introverts are better at listening to them and granting them the autonomy they need.
Despite the contrary evidence, we continue to idealize the leaders who are at their best making speeches and kissing babies – in the back-slapping tradition of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But with the support of Cain and other researchers, we’re learning that introverts make great leaders, too. Whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama takes the helm in January, we can be hopeful that either could make an impact from the executive office – just… a little more quietly than most.