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Being an introverted leader

Francisco Guarisse , HBS '17

Francisco Guarisse, HBS ’17

By Francisco Guarisse, Harvard Business School Class of 2017

Everybody knows it by now: the mission of Harvard Business School is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world”. To advance this objective, the school enrolls around 900 new MBA students each year to come to Boston and learn about leadership. There is, however, an apparent conflict in that task. On the one hand, between 35% and 55% of those students are introverts (this may come as a surprise to some: being quieter and less prone to social activities than average, introverts tend to be less salient). On the other hand, the very qualities our society associates with leadership – presence, teamwork, and eloquence to name a few – are customarily linked to extroversion. Consequently, 96% of managers and executives display extroverted personalities.

There are several misconceptions about introverts. They are frequently regarded as people who avoid social gatherings, abhor small talk and are frequently alone (some even say the only thing introverts bring to a party are excuses to leave early). The reality is that introverts are simply people who react differently to their environment. Whereas extroverts crave large amounts of stimulation, introverts usually thrive in quieter, less populous surroundings and tend to operate through observation and internal reflection.

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Susan Cain in her 2013 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking brought attention to how our society and institutions are increasingly biased towards extroversion. For instance, many 21st century schools are designed to foster group assignments and extensive collaboration. Similarly, open offices have become the workplace standard, thereby allowing endless opportunities for social interaction but little room for uninterrupted reflection.

But our society could really gain a lot by acknowledging the strengths of introverts as leaders. In general, they tend to be more careful and to take more calculated risks. Introverts also tend to be better listeners, and are less likely to stand in the way of motivated employees with innovative ideas. A study conducted by Francesca Gino, associate professor at HBS, revealed that proactive teams benefit from having quiet bosses, because introverted leaders carefully listen to what their followers have to say and make employees feel valued.

Introverts can also be very helpful when there is a team crisis. As one student from Section J mentioned, “by taking more time to reflect deeply about the problem the team faces, introverts are more likely to understand the big picture and the root causes of the crisis and consider potential levers to change the situation.” Bill Gates said in a recent speaking engagement:

“I think introverts can do quite well. If you’re clever you can learn (…) to go off for a few days and think about a tough problem, read everything you can, push yourself very hard to think out on the edge of that area.”

Challenges do exist, however. As a student put it:

“I have found that it takes longer to build rapport with a team as an introvert. I tend to speak less often in meetings (or in an HBS classroom!). Introverts have to be particularly thoughtful about building relationships. Having high quality (instead of quantity) interactions can help a lot, such as remembering details from previous conversations and just generally following through on action items.”

In conclusion, introversion is not at all incompatible with high-impact leadership. Leadership is so much more than dazzling clients with witty conversations or delighting senior management with impeccably delivered PowerPoint presentations. It is about listening with attention, taking turns in brainstorming sessions, motivating employees, developing the potential of workers, and dealing with crisis. And introverts don’t shy away from that.

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February 17, 2016

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