Why the Corner Office Can Use a Few Introverts

A new study suggests that extroverts have an easier road to the CEO suite, but all temperaments can lead well---and can benefit from a bit of downtime.

Score one more for the introverts.

I’ve written here a few times in the past about how so-called charismatic leaders aren’t the end-all-and-be-all of good leadership—and how sometimes that kind of personality can actually get in the way of an organization’s success. A recent study of 17,000 C-suite executives puts some harder numbers behind that.

According to the study by the consultancy ghSmart, “while boards often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors.” The researchers suggest that CEOs often get their jobs because they’re great speakers about themselves with the board members and hiring committees charged to hire them, but that gift of gab doesn’t necessarily translate into high achievement in the corner office.

Some of the things that make CEOs attractive to the board have no bearing on their performance.

Elena Lytkina Botelho of ghSmart told the Washington Post that “some of the things that make CEOs attractive to the board have no bearing on their performance. Like most human beings, they get seduced by charismatic, polished presenters. They simply do better in interviews.”

That doesn’t mean, of course, that an introverted leader is necessarily a better leader than an extrovert. People can have different definitions of introvert, and sometimes those introverts perform well against lower expectations. But the study is a useful lesson that a more quiet personality isn’t necessarily a trouble spot for a leader. Look at the four traits of a successful CEO that ghSmart identified (as summarized by the Post), and it’s clear they’re more about flexibilty and command than emotional temperament: “reaching out to stakeholders; being highly adaptable to change; being reliable and predictable rather than showing exceptional, and perhaps not repeatable, performance; and making fast decisions with conviction, if not necessarily perfect ones.”

Some might argue that introverts are less good at the “fast decisions with conviction” part. Aren’t they the ones who need lots of quiet space with their thoughts and extra time to deliberate over things? Well, yes…and no.

In a New York Times op-ed that caught fire back in April, David Leonhardt made the case for the value of a “Shultz hour.” Leonhardt named it after George Shultz, secretary of state during the Reagan administration, who made a point of carving out one hour a week for quiet contemplation. Not aimless daydreaming or a good nap, but a solid 60 minutes of focused attention on big-picture matters without the distractions of media or other people.

Shultz’s “hour of solitude,” Leonhardt writes, “was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. Otherwise, he would be constantly pulled into moment-to-moment tactical issues, never able to focus on larger questions of the national interest. And the only way to do great work, in any field, is to find time to consider the larger questions.”

Leonhardt’s follow-up advice about how best to make use of a Shultz hour is mainly advice about what not to do—mainly, not looking at your phone so darn much. Which is fine as far as it goes. But I think the lesson from introverted leaders, when it comes to that hour, is a little more targeted. What the introverted leader is doing is reducing distraction to focus on the matters that are important to them. They carve out the time for strategic thinking. So when that leader is forced to act quickly, it’s not as much of a crisis for them as you might suspect—because there’s a good chance they’ve already done a lot of that advance thinking on a subject. (Next time you’re inclined to cite Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink as an example of brilliant think-on-your-feet leadership, give it another read; many of Gladwell’s examples feature people who do a lot of advance prep for those storied lightning-fast decisions.)

In 2013 Susan Cain, author of a bestselling book on introverts called Quiet, told Associations Now that underestimating introverts’ leadership skills is an error that’s baked into our culture. “We assume leadership almost by definition is an extroverted act,” she said. “[But] when you have a group of employees who are proactive and committed to what they are doing, they do better under an introverted leader than an extroverted one. That leader is more willing to nurture his employees and allow them to implement their ideas, whereas extroverted leaders can get so excited and tend to be naturally dominant that they put their own stamp on things, so other people’s ideas may not shine as much.”

Cain didn’t assume that all leaders are exactly one way or the other—there are plenty of “ambiverts” out there. If ghSmart has it right, the people who do a lot of the hiring of leaders are acculturated to believe that the person who makes the clearest show of confidence wins. But in fact, good leadership has many moods.

What do you do to support introverted work styles in your organization, or to build quiet time into your own work? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!