One of the paradoxes of leadership is that the people who most want to lead are often the last people we would want given the responsibility. The pushy hack, the selfish careerist and the ruthless opportunist are just some of the unpleasant types who tend to force their way to the top. They thrive in hyper-competitive environments. Decent people, who might actually make better leaders, seem to have a harder time scrambling upwards. They may have exactly what it takes to lead, but lack what it takes to get the chance.
My smell test for business leaders is if they talk about the importance of humility. The moment the word leaves their mouth, I assume they are the worst kind of corporate hypocrite, on the very simple basis that truly humble people don’t boast about being humble.
One way academics have sought to categorise the character traits required to succeed has been to divide us into extroverts and introverts, and much research has found that it is the extroverts who do best.
Extroverts like to be the centre of attention, seek status and approval and talk a lot in social settings. They are good at motivating employees and leading change. Consequently, they earn more and get more promotions. Larry Ellison of Oracle and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase are prominent extrovert leaders, thrusting themselves forward in their company’s interests.
So what hope is there for introverts? Are they simply to bask in the sun of the extroverts? Or can they lead too? Absolutely, say Adam Grant, Francesca Gino and David Hoffman, business school professors and authors of an intriguing new paper, “Reversing the Extroverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity”, published in the Academy of Management Journal. They argue that one key variable has been underestimated in the argument over which character-type does best in business. And that is the degree to which a manager’s employees are proactive.
If employees are passive, they found, an extrovert thrives by giving a clear lead. If employees are more proactive, the introvert does better because he actually listens and incorporates their advice into his decision-making.
What is novel here is that up to now, the advice for introverts in business has generally been to be more extroverted, to follow the old salesman’s mantra, “act enthusiastic to be enthusiastic”. But many forced grins later, is this really the best way for them to succeed?
It is clearly not necessary to be the life and soul of a party in order to run a great business. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are neither natural glad-handers nor extroverts, but all have the bullheadedness and genius that drags others along. Anna Wintour at Vogue and Giorgio Armani are frosty characters who are nonetheless accomplished managers in a highly creative industry. Sir Richard Branson has turned himself into an extrovert for the public but is said to be an introvert in private.
The academics drew on two sets of data. The first was from a chain of pizza restaurants, where they analysed financial performance and the nature of the managers and employees. The second came from a lab experiment, where they asked people to act either extroverted or introverted in managing a group folding T-shirts. The evidence showed that a proactive group either butted heads or felt underappreciated working for an extrovert leader and performed better under an introvert. The passive groups worked best for an extrovert and felt lost under an introvert.
Prof Grant told me that introverts do especially well at engineering and accounting companies, which tend to emphasise technical skills over personality. But other industries, especially those “with a lot of velocity and environmental turbulence”, could benefit from hiring, valuing and promoting more introverts.
Extrovert leaders might succeed in these environments, but it’s rather like putting all your money on a single number on the roulette wheel. Far better to have an introvert leader ready to absorb a lot of input in order to discover the best processes or business models.
To get to be leaders, introverts must still prove themselves terrific individual contributors. Without the noise and flash of the extrovert, they will have to find subtler ways to show they can lead. But once in a leadership or managerial position, they no longer need to worry about loosening up at parties and becoming more extroverted.
Instead, they can succeed by surrounding themselves with proactive employees, and giving them the autonomy and responsibility they require to perform at their best. They can focus on encouraging behaviour that complements their existing style rather than trying to acquire an awkward new one.