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Do extroverts or introverts make the best leaders - and has digital made a difference?

Does your personality type make you a more effective leader?

If you identify as an extrovert, you’re likely to think on your feet and establish extensive networks. You may be perceived as assertive, enthusiastic, inspiring and dominant, traits that are traditionally associated with leadership.

On the other hand, you may respond to situations too quickly and worry you have said the wrong thing. You might also be easily distracted and need to consider where you spend time in your network.

If you’re introverted, you may be more inclined to reflect, respond thoughtfully, and form deeper (if fewer) relationships. Your team members may see you as creative, a good listener, and a sympathetic communicator who doesn’t dominate or interrupt conversations.

All of these qualities make for approachable and highly capable leaders – although you might need to put more energy into developing new contacts and ensure you aren’t underselling yourself or your knowledge.

So which leadership approach works best?

The reality is that neither introverts NOR extroverts make the best leaders. The most effective leadership needs a balance of the two, and leaders who only exhibit a strong dominance of one characteristic or the other tend to lack that balance.

And there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that it is significantly easier to teach an introvert (‘i-preference’) how to communicate more assertively than it is to teach an extrovert (‘e-preference’) how to be a more considerate listener.

Delegates on Henley Business School’s Developing Management Practice programme have discovered that the foundation of the solution for many managers is a heightened awareness of their own preference, coupled with a deeper understanding of the preferences of other team members and stakeholders.

For example, if you are more inclined towards working on your own, you may need to adapt your behaviour to create a more effective rapport with extrovert teams, which thrive on group meetings and collective problem-solving activities. Delegation is another area in which a recognition of different behavioural types is critical to achieving positive outcomes.

And working in open-plan offices can present challenges for those who are more introverted and operate most effectively when given their own time and space.

Adapting leadership styles to the digital world

It would be easy to think that the digital world might even out the differences between introverts and extroverts, given that extroverts cannot respond quite as quickly on email, text or social media as they could verbally. But they also tend to get distracted by messages and lose focus.

Introverts, on the other hand, find it even more difficult to impose themselves when communicating in written form, and their sympathetic listening skills are less obvious when not in a face-to-face or even auditory situation.

So whilst the digital platforms force us to connect in different ways, leaders at both ends of the scale have to work even harder to adapt their styles to the medium.

As Programme Director Debora Brockwell points out: ‘Both preferences need to ensure they are using the right communication mode to get their message across. We all can get too busy, but considering the most appropriate medium – email, phone or face-to-face – is really important. For example, extroverts may choose to communicate face-to-face when an e-mail will do and introverts vice versa. And many people can be completely overwhelmed by receiving masses of e-mails, so understanding email etiquette is really important in minimising the risk, and maximising engagement.’

But are we really only one or the other? Or are we all ambiverts?

More recently, the trend has been towards an understanding that most people exhibit both extrovert AND introvert characteristics, and perhaps the best leaders are those who can utilise the appropriate persona, depending on the situation they face.

When it’s necessary to rouse the team, they can muster the necessary enthusiasm, but they can just as easily slip into listener mode to give space and confidence to their opposition within a negotiation or sales situation.

Debora’s co-Director on the Programme, Denise Fryer, cites the self-awareness that the programme instils – through a variety of workshops and tools such as MBTi® – as one of the key reasons for its success:

‘Time after time, we see participants who initially have a strong bias towards one end of the spectrum or the other, having those lightbulb moments when they realise the consequences of their own behaviour. It’s very gratifying to see how their self-awareness and behavioural understanding has shifted over the duration of the programme, to the point where they become much more balanced, much more aware of their behaviours and – as a result – more effective as communicators and leaders.

‘Leaders who perform best tend to be those who are more self-aware; by having a better sense of your position on the extroversion/ introversion spectrum, you can control your behaviours and preferences, which increases your emotional intelligence.

‘We still see many managers with an i-preference who need to be more influential and effective within their e-preference organisations. Through our coaching those individuals are able to consider their intent and impact and develop ways of adapting their own style accordingly and move towards being genuine ambiverts.’

Find out more about the Development Management Practice programme.

Published 7th November 2019
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