McGill University Professor Karl Moore explains why leaders should learn to channel their inner introverts

The CEO of a major multinational came to our CEO Insights class and told us that, as an introverted leader, he had to put on his “game face” whenever he left his floor. If you want to be the CEO of a big organization, he implied, you need to act like an extrovert at times.

After studying introverts in the C-suite, I have come to the conclusion that extroverts, like myself, must put on our “game face” and act like an introvert at times, in order to be effective leaders. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

My current research project on leadership involves interviewing CEOs of large firms of over 10,000 employees about introverts in their C-suite, asking them about what strengths introverts typically bring to the table. I follow up by interviewing their introverted executives about their career paths, how they got to the top, how they effectively work with extroverts (and their fellow introverts) and the strengths they believe they bring to the senior team.

The leadership literature has almost exclusively focused on how extroverts manage introverts – an important topic, but one that assumes that all leaders are extroverts. However, what my research suggests is that somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent of C-suite executives are more on the introverted side. Given then that a considerable percentage of executives are introverts, it makes sense to ask if an introverted CEO must behave like an extrovert to be an effective leader, then might the opposite be true? That an extroverted leader must “channel” their inner introvert in order to be an effective leader?

In retrospect, this seems obvious. To put in order words, what are the leadership strengths demonstrated in action by many introverted leaders which more extroverted leaders should learn from and try to emulate? In my research, four strengths stand out.

Introverts typically appear to be better listeners, they wait for others to express their ideas before they jump in with theirs, they don’t need to be at the centre of every conversation, and when they present ideas, they tend come out more fully formed and well thought out. As an extroverted leader, I believe I have grown as a leader by learning to emulate the four strengths that many introverted or quiet leaders bring to the table.

As an extrovert I can, in my better moments, be articulate and words come out all too easily at times. This means that my fellow extroverts and I can easily dominate our introverted colleagues if we are not careful. Research by Wharton’s Adam Grant with colleagues Francesca Gino of Harvard and Dave Hofmann of UNC suggests that in contexts where little creativity is required and we want things done a standard way, think fast food chain restaurants, this domination is not necessarily always a bad thing. But with most of the companies I work with, it is creativity and insights from all our employees that we are looking for. My McGill colleague Henry Mintzberg has argued that organizational strategies are increasingly emergent, rather than the more deliberate strategies that are reputed to come from consultant-lead away weekends of senior executives.

With the increasingly turbulent environment of many industries, we must pick up the pace of change within our firms to effectively align with those fast changing environments. A key way to effectively stay aligned is going to be boundary spanning employees, with one foot in the customers/suppliers/partners world and the other in our firm. Learning is becoming more important than always being dominant. Listen more, talk less is a key lesson for extroverts.

Going along with this notion of extroverts learning from introverts, extroverts should consider sharing their ideas much later in the process of a meeting. Two benefits accrue. As a senior person, my ideas will too often tend to freeze out others’ contributions. Following the good example of introverts, extroverts should put off putting out their ideas until others have had the chance to present theirs. As senior people, we get to decide the forward strategy. We already know our own ideas, we should make sure that we fully listen and hear the ideas of others in the most encouraging environment possible. Holding off on expressing our opinions is one way to do just that.

The second benefit is that our ideas will improve if we have a chance to reflect on them in the course of a meeting rather than blurt them out at the outset of the meeting. Building on our initial thoughts, using the helpful points made by our colleagues, will almost always result in a superior idea.

Extroverts don’t mind being the centre of attention, in fact we rather enjoy it. However, as you progress in your career, you must learn to turn the spotlight from yourself and beam it on the people who work for you. This is part of going from being a star performer to being a manager; from me to we. This comes much more naturally for introverts, but it is something my younger employees need and sometimes crave. Give it to them.

Just like the introverted CEO that came to class and talked about putting on his game face and acting like an extrovert, as an extrovert I, too, put on my game face when I leave my office and act like an introvert to be a more effective leader. In this article, I have suggested four ways of doing just that.

Karl Moore (@profkjmoore) is an associate professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University and an associate fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University.