Are extraverts better leaders after all?

LionI can’t believe I’m actually asking this question. As an introvert myself, and as someone who passionately believes that organisations benefit from diversity, it feels almost like a betrayal of my fundamental values to suggest that extraverts are better at leadership than introverts. And yet, putting aside my own feelings for a moment, I wonder whether organisations still prefer their leaders to be extraverts.

Of the four pairs of preferences that make up the Myers-Briggs model of personality type, the extraversion/introversion dimension is the most widely discussed, and at the same time still perhaps the most misunderstood. The common understanding is that extraverts are confident, sociable and decisive, while introverts are shy, retiring wallflowers. If this is how the difference is usually perceived, it’s quite understandable that introverts are not regarded as natural leaders.

The psychological definition of extraversion and introversion as used in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator however is rather different: it’s all a matter of where people focus their attention and gain their energy. Extraverts focus their attention on the outside world, gaining energy from other people and action, whereas introverts focus on the internal world of ideas, gaining energy from reflection.

Typically, extraverts are good talkers and think things through by discussing them. They can be great in large groups, may prefer managing by walking around and although they can be very sociable with direct reports, they may not necessarily know that much about them. Introverts on the other hand think first and talk later. They prefer to communicate in writing, are good listeners and work well on a one-to-one basis. They focus on depth rather than breadth of information, and may therefore know quite a lot about the people closest to them.

This is not to say that an extravert and an introvert can’t do what the other does; they just use their skills and gain or lose energy in different ways. If we put an extravert and an introvert through a day of large meetings, both may perform equally well, but at the end of it the extravert will be energised while the introvert will be drained. No prizes therefore for guessing who will be more effective at entertaining clients that evening. If however their day is spent working on a strategic document mainly on their own, by the time it comes to an evening spent preparing for tomorrow’s important presentation, the extravert is more likely to be exhausted, while the introvert will still be going strong.

In theory, it would make sense to have a good mix of both types at all levels of an organisation; they bring different approaches, creating a richer, more diverse culture. The traditional bias though has always been towards extravert leadership, where the ability to jump in and respond instantly is valued. This however can lead to a level of risk-taking that goes beyond what’s appropriate. By contrast, an introvert’s need to reflect and think things through is often dismissed as indecisiveness and lack of confidence, yet their approach can bring a much more considered response that better manages the risks involved.

Research has suggested that while the American population is split roughly 50:50 between extraverts and introverts, a hefty 96% of US managers and executives are extroverts (the proportion of extraverts in the UK population is actually slightly higher than in the States; I am not however aware of any research showing the percentage of UK managers who are extravert). So although there has been much more discussion recently about the strengths that introverts bring, there’s still a lot to be done to change the status quo. Introverts are often told that if they want to get on they should behave more like extraverts; the suggestion that extraverts need to learn from introverts is hardly ever heard.

Getting back to my original question about whether extraverts are better leaders than introverts, I believe the answer is ‘no’. If however I were to ask whether organisations still place greater value on the types of behaviour more likely to be displayed by extraverts, resulting in more of them gaining leadership positions, the answer is probably ‘yes’.

This is the first in a series of four related articles looking at leadership in terms of the dimensions of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  This article first appeared in TrainingZone.

The other articles in this series

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