Why the world needs more introverts


(Photo: Daniel Ehrenworth)

Thomas Caldwell didn’t achieve success by hiding. Glass surrounds him on three sides when he sits in his 17th-floor office: behind him and to his left, the skyscrapers of Toronto’s Financial District. To his right are Caldwell’s employees at their own desks, seen through a glass wall that is meant to remind them of his standing offer to come in and talk.

And talk he does. Caldwell, the founder and CEO of Caldwell Securities, a privately owned investment and wealth management firm, is known for being outspoken and opinionated. A valued source for business journalists, he likes to rail against outrageous executive compensation at publicly traded companies. He is fond of saying the company directors who overpay executives should fire themselves.

Despite outward appearances, Caldwell calls himself an introvert. “My natural habitat is a windowless room by myself, conjuring up ideas,” he says. His acquaintances in business would be shocked. It’s an extrovert’s world out there. For an introverted executive, every day involves faking it to make it.

It’s difficult, even stressful, for an inwardly oriented person like Caldwell to make oneself highly conspicuous and invite interruption. He’d prefer to be driving around anonymously in his modest pickup truck, not hobnobbing at the Wall Street cocktail parties he calls a living hell.

But so many of us equate being loud, flashy and sociable with leadership. Boisterous Richard Branson is the stereotypical CEO in a way that unassuming Bill Gates is not. We design our workplaces to encourage socializing, with few walls and no doors. The bridge of the starship Enterprise crystallizes the dichotomy nicely: jovial, risk-taking James T. Kirk serves as captain, while the cold, reserved Spock is the first mate who figures out the technical stuff. A charismatic leader with the reticent nerd in a supporting role: it can seem like the way of the universe.

Introverts do not often even get a chance to lead, whatever their abilities. They’re simply not as aggressive at seizing the opportunities as extroverts. One 2005 study of 4,000 managers at U.S. companies found that fully 96% of people in supervisory positions exhibited extroverted personalities, although Adam Grant, who studies personality types and leadership, and teaches management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, cautions that the survey relied on self-reporting. In the corporate world, “there might be a little bit of a glass ceiling for introverts in non-tech companies, but it’s not insurmountable,” he says. A small but growing body of research shows introverts often make better leaders—often spectacularly successful ones—largely because they actually listen to what other people say. If more introverts took charge, we might all be better off.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung first categorized human beings as either extroverts, people who live connected to the world around them, or introverts, who spend more time in their own minds. Psychologists now assume everyone fits somewhere on an extrovert-to-introvert continuum (with so-called “ambiverts” landing right in the middle).

Self-examination can easily reveal one’s tendencies. Would you much rather speak to people one-on-one than work a room or give a speech? Do you feel drained after socializing with strangers, even if you enjoyed it at the time? Are you a good listener? Do you prefer to work alone as opposed to in a group? The more yes answers you give, the more likely you are to be introverted. Extroverts, by contrast, thrive in the moment, crave stimulation and relish social contact more than introverts. They get recharged by a party while an introvert is drained by it. Another way of looking at it is that extroverts are people who associate happiness with excitement, whereas introverts are happiest when at peace.

It is true that shyness and introversion often coincide in the same person, but shyness does not define introverts, contrary to the common misconception. In the bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, author and former corporate lawyer Susan Cain explains: “Introversion is not shyness, introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.” What makes you an introvert in the eyes of psychologists is not your social skills—many introverts do just fine in that department—but rather your need for solitude, quiet time, and your preference for an inner world of ideas over the din of social chatter.

These qualities often make for great leaders, and proud introverts like to point to certain famous examples. The names of Gandhi and Warren Buffett come up often. Abraham Lincoln is sometimes mentioned as a great introverted leader. Much of what we read about Stephen Harper and Barack Obama suggests both men are introverts. The air of aloofness they can project through the television screen is a strong hint. (Coming off as remote or unapproachable is a common problem for introverts.)

Introverts often lead their companies to category-beating success. For the 2001 book Good to Great, management guru Jim Collins and his research team analyzed companies that had transformed themselves from middling performers to index-beating powerhouses. A surprising number of them had leaders that demonstrated a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will,” Collins wrote. They came off as “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy.” A prime example was the late Darwin E. Smith, a “mild-mannered” in-house lawyer who surprised even himself when he was named CEO of Kimberly-Clark. Over the 20 years ending in 1991, he remade it into the world’s top paper-goods company. Smith never “cultivated hero status,” Collins wrote, and spent his off time puttering around with a backhoe at his Wisconsin farm. Conversely, spotlight-grabbing, self-aggrandizing types were found to be unsuited to turning good companies into great ones.

Laurie Helgoe, a Charleston, W.Va.–based psychologist and author of the 2008 book Introvert Power, believes that introverts have a leadership advantage in their ability to delve into the big ideas and not be distracted by frivolous social preoccupations.

That is not to say introverts are unsociable. While they would rather not have to meet too many new people at once, they cherish the relationships they do have. When they warm up to you, they can be caring friends and colleagues.

Introverts are not motivated to be the centre of attention, and will share credit as credit is due. These traits are the key to understanding how introverted leadership works, Grant says. “When others directly bring them ideas, they’re less likely to be threatened. The second thing is a tendency to ask questions and listen. If you put those two elements together, what you get is average introverted leaders being more able to access new and good ideas from below.”

Introverts often prefer to get their own ideas across in writing, and the written word can be a means of connection as well. Douglas Conant led the Campbell’s Soup Co. through a widely recognized turnaround; in a Financial Times interview around the time of his retirement in 2011, he credited his success to what he called an “obsession” with employee motivation. Quiet author Susan Cain sees introversion written all over Conant’s way of inspiring Campbell’s workforce. During his 10 years as CEO, he penned more than 30,000 individual notes to employees to applaud their performance.

“That’s something no extrovert would do,” Cain says in a phone interview. “Sitting down at your desk and writing all those notes? Impossible.”

Despite all of the introvert’s natural gifts, we’re used to seeing extroverts take charge—even when they don’t deserve it. Research suggests that introverts are especially suited to leading equally motivated people. (On the other hand, if you need to fire up some lazy workers, you want an extrovert in charge.) Grant, of the Wharton School, says businesses must stop assuming that if someone is an introvert, he or she is “therefore probably not likely to succeed as a leader.”

In a perfect world, sure. In the real world, introverts know they must fight against their retiring instincts in order to succeed. They adopt what Cain calls “pseudo-extroverted” behaviour—that is, acting outwardly like extroverts—to navigate the challenging environments of parties, boardrooms and open-concept offices.

Some introverts claim to have conquered their social hesitation by joining groups that promote the podium as the conduit to success. Organizations like Dale Carnegie Training and Toastmasters International (slogan: “Where leaders are made”) reinforce the idea that to lead is to speak by helping the shy and introverted overcome their terror of oration. At a Toastmasters International district conference in a Toronto suburb in November, members made plenty of direct eye contact as they talked about the shyness that had once silenced them, holding back their lives and careers. One typical story from a self-identified introvert was that of Phil Tasci. “One on one, I’m fine, I’m loquacious, I can express my ideas,” he said, referring to a past version of himself who would vomit due to sheer nerves before having to perform for an audience. Four years of Toastmasters training later, he has reprogrammed himself into a people person. He transferred from accounting to training within Canada Revenue Agency—to move from working with numbers to working with people, as he put it—and has started a fledgling side career as a communication coach and speaker for hire.

Why do introverts feel such pressure to become strong speakers? Because if you’re going to excel in many fields, no amount of listening skills or handwritten notes gets you off the hook from having to speak in front of people. And even introverts who are fine with public speaking can get tongue-tied when talking off the cuff.

He who hesitates in the meeting room is lost, and introverts often lose their chance to look like leaders. Your loud, swaggering types are as comfortable slipping into the role of boss—or elbowing their way into it—as introverts are fine with stepping aside. In a 1999 study, researchers from Memorial and McMaster universities asked 480 undergraduates to rate each other’s leadership abilities after a semester working together in informal teams of around five. In these leaderless groups, decision-making power was anyone’s for the taking. The extroverts grabbed the reins more often and exemplified strong leadership better than the introverts, or so thought the students.

The study ultimately determined that other traits, like intelligence and conscientiousness, were more important for seizing leadership than extroversion—but smart introverts shouldn’t celebrate just yet: even if they are bright, their peers won’t recognize it until they speak up. A 1997 study by a University of British Columbia team asked psychology students to rate the intelligence of the other members of their regular discussion meetings. After two sessions, the shy people were perceived as less bright than the outspoken ones. “Regrettably, our studies have confirmed the bad news regarding how the intellectual abilities of shy people are perceived,” the research team concluded. In short, we think people who talk a lot are smart—and vice versa.

Brainy, bashful people did make themselves known over time, however. They gradually impressed the other students, and by the end of the seventh meeting they had nearly caught up with the outgoing smart people on their peers’ evaluation forms. But what is the cost of missing the chance to make a good first impression?

Helgoe insists it’s about time introverts asserted themselves enough to create a quieter, slower world more to their liking. Why must introverts learn to speechify and extemporize in a group? Why is it that introverts must shape themselves to the world? Why can’t the spotlight be shared fairly, not simply shone on those who hog it? Parts of her book, Introvert Power, read like a manifesto for inwardly oriented people’s right to refreshing solitude.

For example, Helgoe urges introverts to be honest about why they are avoiding the after-work drinks: rather than make an excuse, they should openly admit they just don’t feel like it. “Alone,” she writes, “is not a four-letter word.” She and Cain both wish companies would recognize that supposedly fun activities that force socialization, from icebreaker exercises to company picnics, can be a nightmare for introverts. Introverts would be better served by informal, relaxed social activities that let them come out of their shells at their own pace.

Giving introverts a chance to retreat from the chatter of the contemporary office—open-concept offices especially—could also be a boon for productivity. Cain has written with approval of 3M’s long-standing policy to “hire good people and leave them alone,” as formulated by 1940s-era CEO William McKnight. Cain argued in The Atlantic magazine that we owe the Post-it note to this policy. Managers would do well to recognize that perhaps half their workforce consists of people who accomplish most through solitary work.

“The way forward, I’m suggesting, is not to stop collaborating face-to-face but to refine the way we do it,” Cain writes in Quiet. She urges companies to create environments where employees are “free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and to disappear to their private workspaces when they want to focus or simply be alone.”

But perhaps if we smooth the path for introverts, we would take away the source of their greatness: triumph over adversity. Caldwell believes that overcoming the challenges inherent to introversion prepares certain people for leadership. Think of the high-school geek, forever seeking vindication; the loner who masters the art of the cold call. “I think life is the business of overcoming stuff—mostly the business of overcoming ourselves,” Caldwell says. “I’ve had to conquer a lot of fear, every day of my life, to overcome my insecurities. I think that tends to drive people on.”