Introverted Leaders Can Do Just as Well as Extroverts (or Even Better!)
Beware of the extroverted “Culture of Personality”
If you feel that society is designed for people who are drawn to the spotlight, you might also believe that in order to be a great leader, one must force themselves to fake a gregarious and highly energetic disposition.
In the age of social media, people who cultivate the best personal brands are likely to land better jobs and opportunities. When you think of the word “leadership”, you are likely to have imagined someone who is actively networking and presenting motivational speeches.
Is this cultural ideal accurate to reality though? What about the leaders who focus more on the quality of their business strategy behind the scenes, cultivating a positive company brand through careful deliberation, instead of using up their energy to build their personal brand?
These individuals are rarely credited, or even remembered, for their contributions. Indeed, extroverts tend to earn more on average compared to their introverted counterparts for the exact same jobs — despite the fact that introverts have been shown to be more effective at work.
So, what is this “Culture of Personality” that many entrepreneurs — especially the extroverted ones — highly revere? Since when did extroversion become a cultural ideal anyway? Is it the same case for all cultures? What should you do if you are introverted but want to succeed as well as extroverts?
Even more boldly, let’s consider how you can even be better at leadership than them!
The Extrovert Ideal
In Quiet, Susan Cain begins by exploring the question of how extroversion came to be favored over introversion in the modern world. Her conclusion was that because America held a monopoly over global culture, extroversion therefore became the cultural ideal (as most Americans are extroverted).
But why are most Americans extroverted in the first place? Cain hypothesized that when humans migrated from Asia and Africa to all other parts of the world, people who stayed back in Asia and Africa chose to do so because they were introverted. Meanwhile, people who migrated to Europe and America did so because they were extroverted.
Adding on to the American extrovert predisposition, nowadays, social media also enables the proliferation of a “Culture of Personality” — with people like Tony Robbins as a prominent example.
Robbins is not a particularly intelligent or reflective man, but he went from salesperson to billionaire due to his ability to conversationally dominate over others. Because of this, he is able to gain power and respect in the workplace in addition to standing out in the spotlight due to his charisma and energy.
People like Robbins are seen as the cultural ideal — the person you have to be if you want to be successful. However, Cain argues that this only appears as such because extroverts deliberately try to stand out compared to introverts — who don’t even bother. Secretly though, introverted leaders may be more successful; even if, needing less social validation, they don’t show it to other people.
The danger in this “Culture of Personality”, however, is that it creates ample opportunity for groupthink. There is now a phrase that refers to this specific branch of groupthink. “New Groupthink” is caused when an extrovert proposes ideas that are accepted — even when they aren’t actually good — just because they say it assertively and confidently.
On the other hand, introverts who have good ideas but don’t present it as aggressively may be overlooked. To overcome New Groupthink, Cain suggests that organizations encourage employees to submit ideas via writing and work on ideas alone — the perfect environment for introverts!
Do ALL cultures have an extrovert ideal?
Fortunately, not all cultures worship extroverts over introverts. In her book, Cain also explains that while Westerners prioritize traits commonly associated with extroversion — being charismatic, engaging, sociable, and friendly — Asians value traits associated with introversion more. This involves being dutiful, hard-working, focused, and respectful. Introverts are better at adopting these values as they tend to observe their environment by instinct instead of immediately react to stimulation.
Unfortunately, Asians living in Western-dominated environments tend to feel pressured to pretend extroversion in order to succeed. Asian-Americans, for example, report feeling that meritocracy ends at graduation — afterwards, people with more desirable temperaments score the favored jobs. Cain talks about several examples of highly-competent individuals who get rejected from a job because they “do not have the right personality”.
Application From Insights
Learning how introversion/extroversion is differently perceived based on culture makes us choose better decisions on where to work and live in the future. Personally speaking, it affirmed my preference for studying in a country like Australia (which has a large Asian community) compared to America (which will force me to become more extroverted).
Moreover, I used to get drawn to the “Culture of Personality”, thinking that I could not be a good leader if I were not extroverted. However, after reading Cain’s explanation, I now understand that it is just an illusion: Introverts can do just as well or even better behind the scenes.
Furthermore, in leading a team, it is important to keep in mind the “New Groupthink” phenomenon. We should incentivize introverts to speak up, so that good ideas would not get overlooked due to sheer lack of charisma in their presentation. As an example, we can apply this insight by asking members to submit their ideas via Google Forms before discussing them in meetings.
Finally, it is imperative that we prioritize understanding people from other cultures, as they might have different value systems than our own. Learning to read the room is a skill that is useful to practice — regardless of your social battery’s capacity. Speaking about my personal life, I will act more reserved and introverted around my Asian family, while acting more energetically and extroverted around my Australian friends.