Why Introverts Make Great Leaders

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Meghan Keaney Anderson
Meghan Keaney Anderson



leadership_introvertsAt this moment, there is an article making the rounds called "The Confidence Gap." The premise of "The Confidence Gap" is that there exists a divide between those who lead and those who stagnate, and it all comes down to -- I’m not ruining any plots here  -- confidence. 

There’s more to it, of course. There are studies and gender lines that run through it. Anecdotes and examples ground its thesis. But the commanding point can be boiled down to a single quote.

“A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be,” authors Katty Kay and Clare Shipman explain. “Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.”

Now, there’s a problem with Kay and Shipman’s theory. It’s a problem that is baked in from word one and reiterated with every tweet, post, and pin. It’s a problem that was likely unintended, and really has much more to do with our interpretation of the article than the article itself. But nevertheless, here it is:

We read the article, and we instantly mistake confidence for extroversion. 

First popularized by Carl Jung, the introvert-extrovert spectrum is a widely recognized personality assessment. Extroverts are characterized by talkative, energetic, and highly social traits, whereas introverts are more commonly defined by more solitary, quiet, and inward-focused behavior. And since confidence is more easily recognized by outward displays, business has a tendency to associate leadership with extroversion

But as others have readily pointed out, introverts can be natural leaders, adept at management and crucial in solving business challenges. 

What Being Quiet Affords You

In 2009, Brian Halligan asked his fellow HubSpot Co-Founder Dharmesh Shah to act as guardian and steward of the HubSpot culture. It was an odd request, Dharmesh will tell you, because culture has a lot to do with people and he isn’t “particularly comfortable around humans.”

Dharmesh Shah is a self-professed, life-long introvert. He's quieter than most, doesn't take phone calls, and avoids networking in the classic sense. He is, however, fascinated by people. In asking him to focus on the company culture, Brian Halligan was leveraging Dharmesh's inherent strength of empathy.

It's not unique to Dharmesh. Ongoing research from Harvard suggests that solitude can actually make a person more capable of empathy towards others. If you're not the center of attention in a social situation, you have the freedom to observe people more closely. You can better assess a room, understand what motivates each person within it and what holds them back. Much of this comes down to a receptiveness for subtleties. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, wrote: "The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said."

The best way to lead a collection of people is to understand what drives them. When tasked with identifying and stewarding the culture at HubSpot, Dharmesh conducted research to ascertain the qualities of people at the intersection of happy and successful within the company. He looked for patterns within that research, talked with people one-on-one, and compiled all of the resulting insights into a model for the values and qualifications the company should commit to moving forward. He ultimately created a deck of his findings that has struck a chord and amassed more than 1.3 million views worldwide.   

The Benefits of Endless Contemplation 

It’s hard to argue that empathy isn't a useful management skill or that it isn't quintessential to the introvert’s persuasion. There is however a second characteristic I want to draw your attention to -- one that may be a bit less logical:    


When most people think of an archetypal leader, they picture a decisive and action-oriented person. While decisiveness is an asset in many leaders, it is doubt and uncertainty that has led to every major breakthrough in human history. Introverts are at home in uncertainty, which is to say, they are perpetually in it. The moment a decision is made, they are contemplating whether it was the right one, and that continuous reassessment can act as an propeller. 

Let me give you an example. In 1911, Einstein came out with his first theory of relativity. I say his first because it was dead wrong. He was getting ready to publicize it and take it to the world, but something held him back -- an insecurity of sorts. Einstein was a known introvert. His publisher called him “one of the most modest people in the world" who constantly referred to his "accidental" fame and "unearned popularity". Even though everything about Einstein's first theory checked out on paper, he decided to revisit his work and stare at it once again from every possible angle. In the end, it took four years of doubt to get to the truth. In 1915, a second theory, the right one, was scribed.

Introverts like Einstein live inside their heads. They process ideas more slowly. They are awful at come-backs. And while all of this may make them woefully unprepared in a rap battle, the continuous contemplation experienced by many introverts does allow them to push harder on some ideas and discover connections between seemingly unrelated things. Einstein may not have sat at the head of a boardroom, but his ideas, which were a product of his quiet and continual questioning, led the way for generations to follow. 

Put simply: Leaders don’t lead because they know the answers. Leaders lead because they continuously pursue them.  

And, Finally, a Clarification

The trouble with essays about introverts is that they necessarily risk denigrating the qualities of extroverts by comparison. The dichotomy of classifying yourself as one thing or another turns into a sort of astrological game. “I’m a Virgo, an introvert, and an INTJ on Myers Briggs. What are you?"  

In reality, the reason we explore topics like this is to get rid of absolutes. To recognize that there may be different types of leaders across an organization and that a diversity of leaders contributes to a company or movement's success. You may be an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in the wide middle ground. The point is this: If you are an introvert, don't rush your questions or force small talk. Don't try to become more outwardly confident or instantly decisive. Instead use what you know about yourself to advance a new kind of leadership, one based in observation, empathy, contemplation, and pioneering insight.

Who are some introverted leaders in your life or business? What makes them strong leaders?

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