That Moment When A Quiet Leader Outshines The Loud Ones


Rob Asghar, Contributor

August 14, 2015

There’s no one-size-fits-all kind of leader. The manner of leader your organization needs always depends on the situation.

When you’ve got a team of stars, they’ll be best served by working under a quiet, introverted leader who respects their ideas and who is willing to let them shine. But if you have a team of passive people who prefer to be told what to do, they’ll find such an introvert to be frustrating and uninspiring. And they’ll often respond to a hotshot who talks a good game and who dominates the spotlight. They may even find themselves worshipping such a leader.

By the same token, a team of go-getters will find themselves wanting to work with the hotshot in much the way the Roman senators worked with Julius Caesar. With messy results.

In her 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain brought much-needed attention to how extroverted leaders have gotten a bit too much good press lately, to the point that excellent introverted leaders are increasingly overlooked.

She noted that, to some extent, our bias to extroverted, dynamic, showy “alpha” leaders is a part of our ancient human nature. But writers such as Cain and Neil Postman also noted how the rise of the industrial and media ages have made it seem that you can’t succeed in life unless you’re a fast-talkin’ salesman or saleswoman.

It’s Not All About Charisma

We all miss Steve Jobs as an iconic, charismatic leader, the guy who can make everyone believe that he’s got yet another miracle up his sleeve. But it’s become increasingly clear that the low-key Tim Cook is the right person to lead Apple at this point in its development.

In a piece last year on Cook’s quiet, unassuming style, John Martellaro noted that introverts offer some advantages as leaders:

They are better listeners

They embrace solitude, and what leader hasn’t known loneliness?

They are wizards of preparation

They challenge themselves (and take that critical, extra second guess.)

They dig deep into problems.

They can be cool when others lose their cool.

Jobs’ relentless, “listen to me” style may have been a game-changer when Apple could be more of a one-man show. But Cook may be the better person to manage and encourage the various egos of the mega-talent that has come to define today’s Apple. (Maybe that’s why Apple reportedly spends $700,000 a year just to keep Cook safe.)

Cain has noted some real disadvantages regarding experts, leaders and commentators who are extroverts. Namely, their confidence is infectious, but their confidence is often wrong:

A well-known study out of UC Berkeley by organizational behavior professor Philip Tetlock found that television pundits—that is, people who earn their livings by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information— make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance. And the very worst prognosticators tend to be the most famous and the most confident— the very ones who would be considered natural leaders in an HBS [Harvard Business School] classroom.

In other words, a magic 8-ball can lead you forward better than most extroverted blowhards can.

Cain also noted that Jim Collins, in Good to Great, didn’t set out to write a book extolling the virtues of the quiet leader; he simply found case after case of companies being taken to the top by low-key leaders who didn’t fit the charismatic ideal.

One study found introverted leaders to be 20% more likely than extroverts to listen to a good idea from others—resulting in a 24% improvement in results. “Extroverts, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas along the way and allowing workers to lapse into passivity,” Cain wrote in Quiet.

But before we assert that introverted leaders are better, let’s pay heed to something else that Cain noted.  “[W]ith their natural ability to inspire, extroverted leaders are better at getting results from more passive workers.”

So, in the clutch, which kind of leader actually, is the best one? It depends. It always depends.

The management gurus and their books tell you that certain kinds of leaders are true leaders—the “best” leaders, the “most trustworthy,” the “most reliable,” and so on.

The big problem with the recommendations of the gurus is that they tend to hype some idealized notion of leader. They usually think of it as “a leader who shines brightly, while also  helping those around her to shine even more brightly.”

But if that blend of extroverted leader and introverted leader sounds good in theory, it rarely exists in real life. Here, we actually have to make choices and trade-offs…depending on the kinds of people that the leader would actually have to manage.

Too often, though, we’ve been giving the benefit of the doubt—and the keys to the company–to the loud, charismatic leader. But that’s not necessarily the kind of leader your organization needs in order to shine.

Also on Forbes:

World’s Most Famous Introverts

This article was written by Rob Asghar from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

There are 2 comments

  • David Longo - 11/07/2015 17:14
    Dead on! I've always advanced my career forward with introverted leaders in charge. Not always, but many of the extroverted leaders I've been around ...have been all about themselves.

  • karen carvell (kari) - 08/19/2015 10:58
    some real truth in this, quiet leaders generate energy into their teams- building confidence, empowering them to face the challenges of leadership themselves.

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