You don't have to be loud to lead

If asked to describe the archetypal leader, most of us would probably reach for characteristics like ‘outgoing’, ‘bold’, ‘assertive’ or ‘self-confident’.

Written by Ross Dickie
Published 01 November 2021
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You don't have to be loud to lead
The received wisdom is that extroverts make the best leaders, and research shows that people with extrovert personalities are far more likely to occupy management positions than their more reserved counterparts. [1] But is it really as cut and dried as that? Let's take a look.

While extroverts certainly have a number of strengths, there are scenarios where their tendency to dominate conversations can lead to conflict. Depending on the circumstances within a team or an organization, introverted leadership can often be more effective. According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, determining which style will yield the better results generally comes down to who is being managed. [2]

Together with colleagues Francesca Gino and David Hofmann, Grant found that introverted leaders generate better outcomes in environments where team members are proactive, willing to challenge the status quo and suggest alternative working practices. Unlike extroverts, who might feel threatened by such behaviour, introverts are typically willing to listen to new ideas and weigh them accordingly. The impact of this is not just a more harmonious working environment; the research showed that proactive teams led by introverts are actually more profitable. [3]

Rock’s six steps

These findings are echoed in the work of David Rock, whose book Quiet Leadership challenges the model of leaders as bold, charismatic, aggressively confident figures, who doggedly pursue their own agenda. Rather, Rock advocates a six-step, coaching-based approach in which managers:
  • Think about thinking - giving people the room to think and taking steps to improve their thinking, instead of simply telling them what to do.
  • Listen for potential - actively listening to team members and giving them time to arrive at their own solutions to the problems they are facing.
  • Speak with intent - being succinct and specific in communication with team members.
  • Dance towards insight - working collaboratively with others to generate new ideas.
  • Create new thinking - understanding the present reality, devising alternatives and committing to change.
  • Follow up - checking back in to assess progress, provide encouragement and set new objectives. [4]

Rock posits a model in which managers take a back seat, leading team members to insight by listening to what they have to say, delving deeply into one issue at a time, and asking open questions.

In his own study of eleven highly successful organizations, management theorist Jim Collins notes that their CEOs exhibited a number of these traits, and were consistently described as “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing [and] understated”. [5]

Top tips for quiet leaders

According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, it can be difficult for ‘quiet’ leaders to find a management style that suits their personalities. She offers the following tips for introverts who wish to lead in a way that feels authentic to them:
  • Know that the force is with you. Grant and Collins have demonstrated that introverts can be more effective leaders than extroverts. So, don’t worry about trying to conform to the norm. Focus instead on strategy and substance, and allow your proactive team members to run with their ideas.
  • Use your energy strategically. Accept that, as a leader, there will be times when you have to step out of your comfort zone and do things that drain your energy. Making sure you build enough ‘you’ time into your schedule will help keep your batteries fully charged.
  • Connect with employees in your own way. If you’re uncomfortable under the spotlight, find other ways to communicate with your team. Send an email or a handwritten note, but find a way of connecting with employees that works for you.
  • Schedule a time to walk the hallways. As an introvert, it can be all too easy to hole up in your office and spend the entire day at your desk. Make a point of setting aside time to catch up with your colleagues and address any concerns they may have.
  • Use your solitude to make great decisions. Don’t feel pressured into making big decisions in the middle of meetings. Instead, take the time to reflect when you’re alone and return confident in your chosen course of action. [5] 

While it’s clear that introverts can be just as effective as extroverts when it comes to leadership, it’s important to stress that they don’t necessarily make better leaders. As Grant et al. point out in their research, the most appropriate leadership style will inevitably depend on the circumstances surrounding a team or organization. However, as more and more employees come to expect autonomy and flexibility in their roles, our perceptions of what a ‘leader’ should be may have to change.


References

[1] Adam Grant, Francesca Gino and David A. Hofmann, ‘The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses’ Harvard Business Review (December 2010) . Available at: https://hbr.org/2010/12/the-hidden-advantages-of-quiet-bosses (accessed November 2021).

[2] Knowledge @Wharton, ‘Analyzing Effective Leaders: Why Extraverts Are Not Always the Most Successful Bosses’ (23 November 2010). Available at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/analyzing-effective-leaders-why-extraverts-are-not-always-the-most-successful-bosses/ (Accessed November 2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jon Warner, ‘Quiet Leadership’ (10 September 2014). Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140910140848-29175303-quiet-leadership (accessed November 2021).

[5] Jim Collins, ‘Good to Great’ (October 2001). Available at: http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html (accessed November 2021).

[5] Susan Cain, 'Quiet Leaders - 5 Tips for Success'. Available at: https://trainingmag.com/trgmag-article/quiet-leaders—-5-tips-success (accessed 11 March 2021).

About the author

Ross Dickie

Ross Dickie

Learning Experience Designer
Ross has been working in L&D since 2015 and is a key member of the instructional design team at Emerald Works. Most of his time is dedicated to writing articles, scoping infographics and contributing to video projects.

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