The Great Debate: Are Extroverts or Introverts Better Leaders?

July 9, 2015

At some point in your life, you’ve probably been identified as an introvert or extrovert by yourself, or someone else. Maybe you identify with the reflective introverts, and prefer to work on your own, in solitude. Or maybe you identify more strongly with the gregarious extroverts, and you are energized and inspired by social interactions and team brainstorming sessions.

When we think about leadership, and the ability to sell your ideas and dreams to others, the extrovert stereotype has traditionally been projected as an advantage. In a USA Today poll, 65 percent of executives said they perceive introversion to be a barrier to leadership, and only 6 percent said they believe that introverts make better leaders.

Fueling the introvert vs. extrovert debate are articles asserting that introverts will soon rule the business world as we continue to progress towards more automated sales processes that eliminate the need for, for instance, the traditionally extroverted “road warrior” doing outside selling. The market research firm Forrester predicts that a million B2B salespeople will lose their jobs in the next five years as online ordering systems rapidly become more sophisticated and intelligent. Others argue the same holds true for management and leadership; as teams are becoming more diverse, virtual and globalized, there is less need for the charismatic extrovert who rallies the team together to inspire enthusiasm and passion to achieve the goals.

So, which is it? Extroverted leaders typically excel at social connections and advocating strongly for their ideas and visions; introverted leaders excel at skills such as thoughtful analysis, listening and reflecting. All of these skills are, without a doubt, universally important to one’s ability to lead, no matter what personality type you identify with more strongly.

The real winners: Ambiverts

In reality, the majority of people can’t be neatly boxed up in one category or the other, nor should they be. In the words of Carl Jung, the pioneering psychologist who is credited with popularizing the terms, “there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

As leaders, it’s critical for us to be able to adapt our behaviors and actions to the vastly varying people and situations we encounter. The best executives are ambiverts, operating in the space between the polar extremes of introversion and extroversion.

To be successful, leaders need to be able to adapt between both introverted and extroverted tasks. Leaders who describe themselves as either strong introverts or extroverts have a harder time being flexible and adapting to a different style when such adaptability is called for, and would make them more successful in achieving their goals. If you consider yourself on one extreme side of the spectrum, chances are you need someone on your team who complements you and brings the opposing strengths of the other personality type to the team.

Whether you personally identify as a gregarious extrovert, a reflective introvert, or a middle-of-the-road ambivert, keep the following points in mind.

Don’t get hung up on “who you are”: Introverts and extroverts like to justify their actions by saying, “that’s just the way I am.” Or, “that’s not who I am.” For example, I spoke with a senior executive the other day who said, “I’m not the type of person to come in Monday morning and ask people about their weekend. I have no interest in listening to fluffy weekend talk, that’s just not who I am.” Great leaders know that you need to be willing to exhibit different behaviors, in different situations, to accomplish your goals.

Be flexible and adaptable: Perhaps the most important attribute of successful ambivert leaders is the ability to be flexible and adaptable. There are times when, as a leader, you need to be directive and assertive, and tell people what to do. There are other times when you need to excel at shutting up and just listening to what others have to say. When you are able to operate in the ambivert mid-zone, it is easier to utilize both extroverted and introverted behaviors when those attributes are needed.

Get excited about being uncomfortable: Strong leaders embrace the diverse, and sometimes uncomfortable, situations and people they might find themselves dealing with. Make it a habit to get out of your comfort zone. If you’re an introvert, chances are you would prefer to spend time alone or with the few people you are most comfortable with rather than being at a large social gathering. Challenge yourself to attend and connect with someone you don’t know. If you’re an extrovert, you might practice just listening instead of falling back on your habit of quickly sharing your stories or doling out advice.

Honor people’s need to feel valued or appreciated. Whether you’re an introvert, extrovert or ambivert, almost everyone has a need to feel valued and appreciated. Recognize this universal need, and set a goal to let three people know each day that you appreciate their contributions, recognize their success, and are grateful for their involvement in your life. Strong leaders lead with gratitude, in every facet of their life.

Keep growing as a leader: After nearly thirty years of coaching leaders, I am continuously amazed that I still get into situations where I’m not sure exactly what to do. People are complicated, and situations can change in a heartbeat. In a society that continues to evolve at warp speed, the ability to continuously learn and grow is even more of a necessity for successful leadership.

Is there a downside to being an ambivert? Strong extroverts or introverts might say yes. Why? Ambiverts lead with traits associated with both introverts and extroverts, and that can make a person who strongly identifies with either style uncomfortable. People on either extreme end of the introvert/extrovert scale might also think that ambiverts don’t take a strong enough stand for what they believe is right. For example, both introverts and extroverts like it best when a leader makes a decision and sets the direction. Although both styles make decisions differently, both introverts and extroverts feel confident about their decisions and know that not everyone will like or agree with the decision. Ambiverts, on the other hand, are much more comfortable collecting feedback and incorporating the feedback into the decision making process. The downside is some team members may feel that ambiverts are either weak or difficult to predict because their response or decision depends on both the individuals they interact with, and the situations they encounter.

Introvert, extrovert or ambivert, your preference does not determine your leadership ability. Great leadership results from your ability to be flexible and adapt your behavior so that you can bring out the best in others and connect with your team members in such a way they are motivated to follow you. What are your thoughts on the introvert/extrovert debate? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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