Time for a Broader View of Leadership?

Time for a Broader View of Leadership?

20 Oct 17 3mins Jon Midmer


Are you an extrovert, introvert or somewhere in between? And how does your extroversion or introversion influence how you lead, like to be led and what you look for in your team? Over the past month, both when taking C-level briefs and receiving feedback on candidates, I have been struck by a marked preference for extroverts. However, as a chatty introvert myself, I wonder whether we shouldn’t be more open to a range of styles, and accept that introverts can lead as effectively, just differently?

In Defence of the Introvert

I realise the definition of extroversion and introversion are up for debate. I view the concepts in two ways: 1) where people get their energy from (extroverts externally, introverts internally); and 2) people’s differing styles of social interaction (extroverts being more gregarious, introverts more reserved). And there can be different combinations of the two, so someone can be extroverted in their thinking and problem-solving style, but more introverted socially, and vice versa.

If many successful leaders are introverts, why is there a preference for extroverts and/or a prejudice against introverts? Maybe it’s because Western societies have traditionally favoured magnetism and action over contemplation and thought?

Introverts have (unfairly, in my view) often been considered too quiet, unassertive and incapable of inspiring “followership” or handling the challenges of the most demanding leadership roles.

However, in business, as in life, it’s easy to mistake confidence for competence, and I doubt many would accuse introverted leaders such as Mohatma Ghandi or Barack Obama of being passive or uninspirational!

New Business Challenges

Until the technological revolution, CEOs had a similar role to that of military generals, rallying troops and giving orders. The company target having been determined and the enemy pinpointed, speeches were delivered to inspire field-based legions to execute.

But in today’s global, more complex, technology-led world, many of the challenges facing organisations today are less like trench warfare and more like keyhole surgery. And whereas sizeable cohorts of engineers and data scientists – typically introverted – could only be found in companies that were in “heavy-duty tech”, now they are just as likely to be found in retailers, hospitality players and leisure businesses.

I believe that leadership is as much about helping one’s organisation figure out complex problems as about rallying the troops – although they are clearly not mutually exclusive. And the more intractable the problems, the more persistent the thought that needs to go into them.

As Albert Einstein, another renowned introvert, said: “It’s not that I am so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.” With increasingly complex challenges, should we not embrace contemplation and listening, rather than shun it? Perhaps, for this reason, at the beginning of meetings at Amazon, employees are required to read – in silence.

Reframing Leadership Expectations

In my view, the role of today’s leader is to empower, not to dominate. Nelson Mandela famously said: “Lead from the back, so others believe they’re in front”, which ties in nicely with Leandro Herrero’s concept of distributed leadership.

This way of thinking encourages leaders to give the stage to workers at lower organisational levels, rather than steal the limelight themselves. Feeling collectively empowered to change a company is certainly far more exciting than being told to deliver change others have come up with.

The way organisations are communicating is also shifting, from top-down to peer-to-peer. Town halls are out, social media is in. Against this backdrop, who’s to say whether an extrovert or an introvert will be the more effective leader?

Could it be that what people today are looking for in a leader is also changing? Many of the most highly respected and successful business leaders I know, be they extroverted or introverted, think deeply, act intelligently and encourage others to do the same.

Could empathy and the ability to listen be as important as charisma and the ability to talk? Neither introverts nor extroverts have a monopoly on any of these gifts.

At the end of the day, isn’t it a question of leaders of all persuasions finding coping mechanisms to adapt their style to get the best out of their teams, which are themselves composed of people of varying personality types?

Is it perhaps time, therefore, that we develop a broader and more nuanced view of leadership? Could we be a little more open to leaders of all personality types, as long as they display intellect and authenticity, empathy and courage?