The Introverted Leader’s Advantage

Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity. ~Susan Cain

My last two blog posts about introversion struck or chord, or maybe even a nerve. Hence, I’m going to continue with the introverted leader topic one more week. Susan Cain, an introvert, collaborates with management researcher, Adam Grant, I’m guessing an extrovert. Here’s what Grant’s research uncovered about introverted leaders as described by Cain.

“Introverted leaders are uniquely good at leading initiative-takers.”

“Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions. Having benefited from the talents of their followers, they are then likely to motivate them to be even more proactive. Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity.  [In Grant’s research study] team members reported perceiving the introverted leaders as more open and receptive to their ideas, which motivated them to work harder.”

In Grant’s own words from an interview with David Brancaccio on NPR: “When you have proactive employees who take initiative to bring new ideas, to make suggestions, to come up with better ways of getting work done. Under those circumstances, we actually found that introverts brought in 14 percent higher profits. The logic is pretty simple, which is extroverts love to be in the center of attention. They like to command the room, and they often felt threatened when their proactive employees were bringing ideas to the table. And they tend to shut them down, which meant that those people were less motivated, and also they got fewer good ideas. Whereas the introverted leaders were very open; they were willing to listen. They took better suggestions, and they left their people feeling more valued. So there is such a thing as an introverted leadership advantage.”

Implications for a Fast-Paced Environment

Cain reports that “Grant is especially excited about the implications of these findings because proactive employees who take advantage of opportunities in a fast-moving 24/7 business environment, without waiting for a leader to tell them what to do, are increasingly vital to organizational success. To understand how to maximize these employees’ contributions is an important tool for all leaders.”

Interesting isn’t it, even paradoxical. In a fast-paced environment with proactive employees, introverts are the better leaders.

Listening, not dominating, and implementing suggestions are all effective motivators that come naturally to introverts.

I recall an example when I was a board chair. At the end of the year I asked the board members to evaluate the past year. At the next meeting I adjusted the agenda, meeting priorities, etc. based upon the collective board members’ input. I still remember what one board member said (an extrovert): “You actually implemented what we suggested.” He was both surprised and pleased. To me, it only seemed logical; why else would I have asked?

Introverts reading this: Do what you do best—create virtuous circles of proactivity!

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4 Outcomes When Leaders Learn How to Adapt

The wise [leaders] adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher. ~Chinese Proverb

Several years ago I worked with a leadership team to help them actually function as a team. We started with Team 101, learning about each other. After they completed a couple of different personality assessments I gave them an assignment. They were to find at least one situation where they could adapt their behavior to another person’s personality preference to work together more effectively. Understanding and then accepting this assignment was more of a struggle for them than I anticipated. Changing their behavior to adapt to someone else, as leaders, they believed was not only counterintuitive but counterproductive. Oy!

When I facilitate a training around any personality-type instrument, I’m nearly always asked, “What’s the best personality for a leader?” The answer is the same, regardless of tool or survey. The most effective leaders are those who are best at adapting their behavior to other styles or types.

I’ve also learned that I need to define adapting. Adapting is not conceding, giving in, or even compromising. Adapting is modifying your behavior to more closely reflect the person (or group) with whom you are communicating.

For example, some people make immediate decisions, and others process first and then make a decision. If you need an answer from someone who makes immediate decisions, you could call them, ask your question, and expect an immediate answer. If you need an answer from someone who processes first, you could email them your question and let them know you’ll stop by later to see what they think.

Why does adapting matter?

First, by adapting you create an environment for others to be most effective. You get the best out of people when you adapt to their style/preference.

Two, by adapting you surround people with an environment where they can thrive. Consequently, they may be more likely to hang around a little longer. Your employee retention could increase.

Three, by adapting your communication is clearer. Clearer communication could mean fewer mistakes.

Four, by adapting you increase trust. More trust allows you to increase your speed – speed of innovation, problem solving, etc.

Leaders who aren’t willing to adapt, I believe, prioritize feeding their own ego over effective leadership. Effective leaders don’t have a specific personality type. Effective leaders are both willing and able to adapt their behavior to others’ personality types.

Effective leaders adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to a pitcher.

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Introversion is not a liability: why introverts make great leaders.

Culturally, we tend to associate leadership with extroversion and attach less importance to judgment, vision, and resolve. We prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say. ~Susan Cain

While working on my doctorate, my cohort was split into two smaller cohorts of a dozen students. The split was simply alphabetical. You would think it would have been a somewhat random split of personality types. Not so. The first half of the alphabet was essentially all introverted and the second half was predominately extroverted. Note my last name—Scanland—I was the introvert in the predominately extroverted cohort.

This is one of many experiences I’ve had where as an introvert I was asked to step it up and be more extroverted. I’m going to assume it’s not intentional, but for the extroverts reading this, there’s something I’d like for you to note. When introverts are asked to be more extroverted, it feels like you’re being told that extroversion is superior to introversion.

It’s not just my own personal experiences. I’ve had clients flat out tell me that they were concerned about individuals’ ability to be effective leaders because they were introverted.

Here are just a few research conclusions about introverted leaders.

From Susan Cain

Introverted leaders often possess an innate caution that may be more valuable than we realize.

The charisma of ideas matters more than a leader’s gregarious charms.

From research conducted by Adam M. Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann

Extroverts and introverts are equally successful in leadership roles overall.

Introverts, in certain situations (i.e., complex and uncertain), actually make better leaders.

An introvert’s ability to hear others, plan, theorize, organize information, and think evidently has its own values!

From Jim Collins’ research…

The best-performing companies of the late 20th century were all led by CEO’s described with words like “reserved” and “understated.”

From the 2012 U.S. Presidential race…

Two introverts ran against each other for U.S. President in 2012: Barak Obama and Mitt Romney.

Finally, from Ilya Pozin on, here are some of the myriad leadership characteristics of introverts that are often overlooked.

  • They’re motivated by productivity, not ambition.
  • They build more meaningful connections.
  • They don’t get easily distracted.
  • They solve problems with thoroughness rather than in haste.

Introverts make great leaders! Maximize their assets instead of asking them to “blend in” with the extroverts.

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John McCain: The Character of a Leader

The character of a leader: “Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us.” ~John McCain

I admired John McCain. Not because I agreed with his politics, because he had the character of a leader. I never voted for McCain; you don’t have to agree with someone to admire their character. As the country remembers John McCain’s service, I’ve been thinking of his character.

Standing up for your adversary takes character.

As described on by Bill Murphy Jr.…

“One of the most famous [examples of McCain’s civility] came in 2008, when McCain was running against then-Senator Barack Obama for the presidency, and a woman asking a question called Obama ‘an Arab’ (as a pejorative, which is of course a whole additional issue). McCain responded by taking the microphone away from her and saying that Obama was ‘a decent family man and a citizen that I just happen to have fundamental disagreements with.'”

Practicing humility takes character.

Jim Collins’ research on leaders reported in Good to Great uncovered two attributes of the highest form of leadership (which Collins coined level-5 leadership). The two attributes are profound humility and professional will. In simple terms, his definition of humility is an attitude that it’s not all about you. It’s about something bigger than yourself. John McCain said, “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”

Great leaders have integrity, and that reflects character.

The definition of integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness. It is a personal choice to hold one’s self to consistent standards. In John McCain’s own words: “Being true to our conscience, being honest with ourselves, will determine the character of our relations with others. That is a concise definition of integrity.”

Great leaders build on commonalities and shared values, that requires character.

Many personality profiles use a similar question format. They provide a list of four adjectives and you’re asked to select the one that most describes you and the one that least describes you. The neuroscience behind the results draws on the fact that we tend to be more certain about what we don’t like. Therefore, I’ve often thought that leaders who play-up differences (i.e., what we don’t like) take the easy way by evoking emotion and seducing followers.

Consequently, focusing on shared values and building on commonalities can be a more  challenging leadership route; it reflects character. One of my favorite McCain quotes: “Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them again.”

John McCain—the character of a leader.

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For leaders, it is THE ONE THING.

Leaders: The struggle to feel valued is one of the most insidious and least acknowledged issues in organizations. ~Tony Schwartz

The struggle to feel valued…that’s right leaders, it’s a struggle! One of my favorite authors (yes, I admit, I have many) Edgar Schein said, “We value task accomplishment over relationship building and either are not aware of this cultural bias, or worse, don’t care and don’t want to be bothered with it.” Hang with me and I’ll explain why I think that is contributing to the struggle to feel valued.

Tony Schwartz said, “The struggle to feel valued is one of the most insidious and least acknowledged issues in organizations. Most employees are expected to check their feelings at the door when they get to work. But try as we might, we can’t. Our core emotional need is to feel valued. Without a stable sense of value, we don’t know who we are and we don’t feel safe in the world.”

Schwartz continues his description: “the experience of feeling valued — meaning accepted and appreciated, recognized and respected.” Here’s my connection back to Schein. Those words— accepted, appreciated, recognized and respected—I believe are only possible in “relationship building.”

All of leadership begins (and maybe ends) with relating to others in a way that helps them feel valued. It is THE ONE THING because if leaders can’t get that right, not much else is going to fall into place. Here are only three (there are many) ways that leaders can help others feel valued.

Leaders who genuinely care.

“Genuinely care more for the person than what the person can offer you and/or your organization. Value is communicated when you genuinely care for people as human beings and not human ‘doings’ (and what they can do for you to help you build your kingdom).” Those are some strong words from Doug Fields.

I do a quick exercise with teams so they can begin to see their teammates as people and not roles. It never ceases to amaze me how little even highly interdependent teams actually know about one another. If you don’t know anything about others, that makes genuinely caring about them next to impossible.

Leaders who give feedback well.

Feedback delivered well is an incredible gift. Feedback delivered well allows someone to feel accepted, appreciated, recognized, and respected. It’s feedback in the moment. It’s feedback delivered from a caring and growth mindset, not from a punitive or punishing mindset. It’s feedback that’s delivered clearly and allows the receiver to fully understand how something should look in the future if they were to accept the feedback.

Leaders who practice dialogue.

Not every conversation should be a dialogue. But without any dialogue, people aren’t going to feel valued. David G. Benner tells us that “Dialogue strives for the engagement of two or more persons in ways that honors both their separateness and their connectedness. Meeting someone in dialogue always involves at least a temporary suspension of our presuppositions about ourselves and the world. This means it always involves a degree of vulnerability to truth.” Or from a less philosophical perspective, Stephen R. Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Dialogue requires listening to understand.

THE ONE THING: Do your employees feel valued?

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