The Introverted Leader

By Paul Dunion | January 25, 2024


Dale Carnegie’s metamorphosis from farm boy to salesman to public speaking icon is also the story of the rise of the Extroverted Ideal. Carnegie’s journey reflected a cultural evolution that reached a tipping point around the turn of the twentieth century, changing forever who we are and whom we admire, how we act at job interviews and what we look for in an employee, how we court our mates and raise our children.”

                                                                                                Susan Cain (Author of Quiet)



What happens to introverted men and women who step into positions of leadership in the light of Carnegie’s extroverted ideal? What are the biases and challenges facing these leaders? It is safe to say that they were experiencing a measure of oppression and likely didn’t even realize it. At best, they probably simply regretted not being extroverted. Western culture is fundamentally extroverted. As such, our families, educational institutions, businesses, and industries, as well as social media invite, encourage and even demand an extroverted orientation.

Cain points out, “In 1790 only 3 percent of Americans lived in cities; in 1840, only 8 percent did; by 1920, more than a third of the country were urbanites”. This unprecedented migration meant that people were working less with neighbors, relatives, and friends. They were mingling regularly with strangers. The social mandate was to make yourself known or be anonymous and forgotten. Being known meant talk, talk confidently, sell yourself. We can say that urbanization made a significant contribution placing extroversion on hallowed ground.

She goes on to point out that the Dale Carnegie phenomenon continues to be alive and well. “We also see talkers as leaders. The more a person talks, the more other group members direct their attention to him, which means that he becomes increasingly powerful as the meeting goes on. It also helps to talk fast; we rate quick talkers as more capable and appealing than slow talkers. All this would be fine if more talking were correlated with greater insight, but research suggests that there’s no such link”.

I had not really appreciated what it meant for an introvert to live in an extroverted society, until I visited Thailand fifteen years ago. After several days in Thailand, I paused and said to my wife, “Something strange is happening. I don’t understand Thai and yet I’m feeling very at home”. I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders and a warm kinship with the people. At first, I decided it must be a vacation glow and then it dawned upon me that Thailand was an introverted country. No wonder It felt like home.

Upon arriving back in Connecticut, I decided it was time to stop trying to be an extrovert. I no longer wanted to enter a social setting with self-inflicted expectations to be gregarious, engaging, and talkative. I created what I called my introverted definition of social interaction: I not here to mostly be with you. I’m here to have an authentic and compassionate relationship with myself in your presence.                     

 I told a couple of extroverted friends about my newfound liberation. To my surprise, they decided they wanted to practice my introverted definition of social interaction. A number of weeks passed, and I asked them how it was going, extroverts practicing introversion. They both reported similar experiences, “It’s going great! We can’t tell you what a relief it has been. We typically enter a social situation and we’re on, engaged, engaged, and engaged. Never stopping to ask who am I here? How do I feel? What do I want?” I guess a little introversion can go a long way for anybody.

As a psychotherapist and consultant, I have worked with dozens of introverts, who bring a dark shadow of feeling inadequate and even shame to their introversion. They have allowed an extroverted culture to define them as failing to measure up to conventional expectations. Introverts often feel more marginalized when working in a culture revering extroversion. The consequence is introverts either attempt to become extroverts or pretend that they are. The third option is that they don’t see themselves as capable of leading with vision, influence, and purpose.


 What is Introversion & Extroversion?


            I believe it is important to view introversion and extroversion as diverse ways of processing meaning. Introversion is a propensity or preference to process meaning internally and quietly. This interior processing can address emerging beliefs, values, and emotions. While extroversion is a preference to process meaning out loud in a conversation. This often leads to perception of extroverts as trusting and friendly. If an extrovert says a great deal at a torrid pace, it may also elicit a perception of alleged intelligence. Of course, extroverts may be friendly and intelligent, and they are talking in an attempt to get clear about their views and opinions.

One evening while listening to an old friend, I learned more about extroversion. After listening to him for a couple of minutes, he paused and said, “You don’t think that I actually believe anything I’ve said so far?” I was listening to him from an introverted perspective, expecting to hear a bottom line. In the meantime, my extroverted friend was verbally moving toward his bottom line. Following that evening, I suspended some of my bias that could easily issue a criticism of verbosity toward an extrovert. It was a good move since I married one.


Contributions of Introverted Leaders


Before the diversity can be held and honored, some of the ways introverted leaders can benefit their teams and organizations needs to be acknowledged.


  • Listening – Because introverts do not need to use language in order to process what they believe; they can clear the airways for others. Their listening can have favorable implications if they are not chastising themselves for not being extroverted. Their listening can easily morph into a deeper resonance with the speakers. Such a connection can be an empathic bridge yielding a foundation for trust building.


  • Open and receptive to ideas – Wharton management professor Adam Grant explains some of the outcomes of his research with both introverted and extroverted leaders. “In the T-shirt- folding study, the team members reported perceiving the introverted leaders as more open and receptive to their ideas, which motivated them to work harder and to fold more shirts”. (Cain) The study did suggest that extroverted leaders are more capable of motivating passive workers. While introverted leader get better results from workers who want to initiate and do so when they feel heard by introverted leaders.


  • Observant – Accompanying the quality of their listening, introverts can be fine-tuned in their observations. With a small amount of intuition, they can hear the beliefs and desires of others, as well as the emotions driving the positions of others. Their ability to observe with discernment can reveal which relationships need more attention and which are ready for more collaboration and co-creation.


  • Setting a here and now pace – Introverts are typically not speedily moving into the next moment. Their pace often possesses an equanimity allowing a team to effectively finesse their approach to problems and decision making. There is the modeling of settling into the moment, the only place where power truly exist, as opposed to the illusion that the next moment is where all that is important takes place.


  • Being Internally Referenced – By their very natures, introverts are internally referenced, which simply means they are very at home in the internal world. While extroverts tend to be externally referenced, which simply means they lean into external events such as people and situations as a reference point for personal identity. For example, a leader might acknowledge a role she plays as indicative of her identity rather than ainnate character traits such as sensitivity or introspection. With a measure of personal growth, Introverts can easily identify their biases and what truly matters to them without speaking impetuously. When being internally referenced, what is popular, conventionally expected, or admired hold less weight in the formation of personal identity. As long as they can bring compassion to trolling their inner depths, their self-awareness will expand exponentially. They can also track defenses such as denial, distancing and domination which can easily have a nefarious impact upon decision making. Being internally referenced can allow imagination to be more accessible. “We are energized not by that which we already possess but by that which is promised and about to be given” (Walter Brueggemann). It is imagination that can usher in that which is waiting to be given.


  • A Rhythmic Candance – Introverts are more likely to bring a balance flow of speaking and listening to a conversation. It doesn’t mean that both people are speaking equally. However, it does mean that each speaker is invested in evoking a response in the listener, with the speaker being ready to become a listener. A rhythmic candance communicates, “I want to tell you what’s important to me and I want to hear how my truth lands on you”. There is an energetic invitation to the listener as well as an enthusiasm to speak. The speaker communicates, “I’ll do my best to be with myself in your presence while I’m speaking or listening”. Silence is honored as an opportunity to integrate what is placed in the airways as well as an invitation to speak. Resonance is created as each person feels the depth and clarity of the speaker while also feeling heard.


  • Stillness – From an externally referenced perspective, stillness may easily be perceived as a negative condition – not moving or no action. However, stillness is a positive introverted condition. It can be viewed as an act of receptivity. It is a suspension of intention, resulting in a person being approachable and well-disposed. Stillness says, “I am here, ready to be touched, moved and informed by the internal world and the external world”. Gnawing, trivial agendas have been released. The need to demonstrate or prove something fades, becoming more opaque. Comparing and contrasting yourself to others in the room loses its robust nature, becoming less attractive. There is a settling in stillness carrying a kind invitation and welcome. It may be its kindness that has stillness worth pursuing.


  • Trustworthy Shyness – A number of years ago I decided to attend a vision quest led by a man whom I did not know. When I arrived at our designated meeting place, I sat on a rock by a river awaiting the leader to gather us up to hike three miles into the Adirondack Mountains. I was not a camping guy, and now I was going to spend ten days in the wilderness with two dozen men who likely had refined ruffing it in the woods. Just then, I looked up and saw the leader walking on rocks in the river, greeting men with an obvious shyness. My anxiety began to dissipate immediately, replaced by a reassurance that I would be fine. My worry had been replaced by a trust in this leader who was a stranger to me. As I hiked with the other men, I remained curious about where this trust came from. All I knew about him was he liked to hang out in the forest and he was shy. Did the shyness prompt me to trust him? I continued watching him facilitate the group. He was obviously introverted, but what was it about the shyness that moved me to trust him? By the end of the second day, I realized that his shyness was without pretense. This man appeared to have no hidden agenda and he was plainly not invested in impressing us. There was a timidity and a reservedness about him; and contrary to popular opinion, his shyness was not accompanied by a lack of confidence. After several days of indulging in shyness observation, I made several decisions regarding what I was observing. I concluded that shyness is an honest response to the new and evolving moment. Honest, because there’s interest about information yet to be gathered. First, there is the question who am I with you? Secondly, who are you with me? Third, who are we together? I have come to trust a shy leader as one who knows how to honor the unknown emerging moment, rather than greet it with contrived certainty.


  • Self-Motivated – Introverts typically possess an ease when it comes to approaching a task without external support and guidance. Some introverts do find social engagement stimulating to their intuition. However, introverts generally find solitude a comfortable way to attend to tasks. The quiet offers opportunity to define a task, research and bring a task to fruition.


  • Respond rather than react – Introverts tend to respond rather than react. Being reactionary is probably a good thing in the middle of a crisis. However, in the rest of life, being reactionary can have several liabilities. It often means that speakers have not adequately considered the implications of what is about to leave their lips. There’s likelihood that someone in the room may feel offended by a pejorative reference to ethnicity, race, gender, or competency. When a reactionary comment is far removed from the topic at hand, it can suggest the presence of a hidden agenda. For instance, when a conversation about this quarter’s net profits is abruptly intruded upon by a comment about replacing a member of the team. Introverts are quietly processing their thoughts and feelings regarding what they hear transpiring in a current conversation. Hence, they typically are reviewing the relevancy and applicability regarding what they are about to say. They are responding and not reacting. We can understand responding as their best assessment regarding the appropriateness of what is to be shared.


Compensatory Extroversion


As an introvert, an extreme introvert, I enjoy singing the praises of introverted leaders. It is not that introversion is a better way to be; nor is that true of extroversion. They both have strengths and areas calling for development. We have been looking at areas of strengths for introverted leaders. Areas of development might include becoming more fully collaborative and a willingness to engage in conflict.

The strengths of extroverts are well-advertised, including an ease with collaboration and team building. Areas of development might include becoming more comfortable with independent work and slowing down their approach to decision making, allowing to be more fully informed. The real problem happens when there is societal encouragement to compensate with extroversion. This compensatory move happens as a way to avoid introversion and allegedly maximize the power of extroversion.

In his article, In Practice – Mediation and the Art of Shuttle Diplomacy, attorney and mediator David Hoffman cites what might be viewed as a compensation of extroversion. “Every time I left my twenty-minute meetings with Jane and her client, Jane was still talking as the door closed behind me on the way out. Jane simply had no control over her impulses to talk and argue”. Hoffman continues, “One thing is quite clear, however: joint meetings would have been unmanageable because Jane appeared to be incapable of picking up on social cues and unable to control the impulse to talk throughout the mediation”.

The ego is highly attached to employing a strategy allegedly securing winning, achieving, and impressing. Compensatory extroversion is one of those popular strategies aimed at generating a level of success. The cost of this strategic move is a serious compromise of discernment regarding how to best face the ambiguity of the current moment.

It may take being vigilantly mindful of a propensity to move into compensatory extroversion in order to curate a creative response in a meaningful discussion. It mostly means to slow down and be curious. What is this current situation asking of me? Does it ask for more of me or less of me? Will it help the process if I speak or if I listen? If leaders allow these inquiries to guide their participation, the result is likely a refined discernment guiding when to talk and when to listen.

Compensatory extroversion runs the risk of prioritizing presentation over character. We tend to value talking, talking fast, and talking a lot as if it confirms a measure of intelligence or knowledge. We can easily remain ignorant of a leader’s vision, values, capacity for integrity and loyalty, as well as an ability to empower others. We may allow feeling impressed, while not really knowing who the speaker actually is.

An extroverted leader willing to interrupt compensatory extroversion will more likely be known and understood by their constituency. This kind of understanding can yield trust, mutual loyalty, and a commitment to support the leader’s vision.





Posted in

Leave a Comment