HAVE YOU ever felt slightly overwhelmed in a room full of people or been totally drained after a night out? Have you ever had to excuse yourself in search of a restorative niche to regain your composure? Have you ever kept silent during a conversation only to remember what you wanted to say just a little too late? If so, you are most likely an introvert and if not, it is very likely that you may know one. In fact, depending on what study you reference, about a third to a half of our population is introverted. For many introverts though, their natural inclinations are seen as something that must be “fixed”. But is introversion really something to be ashamed of? Although often gone unrecognized, there are plenty of introverts that optimized on their quiet strengths to leave a distinctive mark. And contrary to the common notion of a leader as extrovert, there are introverted leaders who successfully rose to the occasion. It is about time we reconsider the long misunderstood concept of introversion and see introverts for who they truly are and what they can become.
Living in an extrovert’s world
Our society has long favored the confident, charismatic, and outspoken as the alpha prototype. Extroverts are on demand. For instance, when asked what his company searched for in potential recruits, Kong Byong-min (Manager, Management Support HRM Team, Hyundai Oilbank) replied “We are looking for an active and outgoing person who can strongly voice his or her opinion.” The classroom setting has also altered accordingly with numerous team projects and presentations, counting participation as a significant grade maker – or breaker. Kim Ga-yeon (alias), a Yonsei student who identified herself as an introvert, expressed her discomfort at this situation. “In my department, participation matters a lot. But for introverts like me, it is difficult to think and speak right on the spot. I wish professors would be more considerate of such differences.”
This is an extrovert’s world we live in, where the loudest are often taken to be the greatest. Take a look at a thesaurus nearby and you will see this implicit bias towards extroverts. Whereas synonym entries for an extrovert are an “outgoing person, gregarious, exhibitionist, mixer, life of the party, socializer,” an introvert is noted to be analogous to a “shy person, autist, solitary loner, lone wolf, self-observer, egoist, egotist, narcissist.” This demonstrates the prevalent attitude that holds one side of the spectrum as ideal and renounces the other as a social misfit.
Yet have we always been this way, looking up to leaders for their bravado and dramatic personalities? After all, the greatest talker is not necessarily the one with the greatest ideas. According to Susan Cain, the bestselling author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” we have made a transition from a “culture of character” to a “culture of personality,” making a shift in perception on what it takes to be a successful, and therefore respectable, person. Starting from the age of industrialization and urbanization, Cain argues, individuals desired to stand out among uniform working and living environments, which translated into a more positive outlook on the extroverted mode of being. The rise of service-based industries has also been a major contributor, leading to the rising importance of “people skills,” which is seen to come more naturally to extroverts.
Just take a look at the self-help section at any bookstore and you will get an idea of the shifting paradigm. Whereas the traditional guides, such as “A Pilgrim’s Progress” and Lincoln’s biography emphasized integrity and humility, the more recent titles such as “How to Win Friends and Influence People” are all about self-promotion in an increasingly competitive society. The key to success – they seem to suggest – is to project an extroverted aura.
Before we embark on a quest to seek the innate power that introverts possess, we must first clarify some misperceptions surrounding introversion. First of all, contrary to popular belief, being introverted does not mean that one is antisocial. As the EBS documentary “Your Personality Part 3: I am an introvert” proclaimed, “Enjoying time for myself does not mean that I do not like people.” On a similar note, introversion is not necessarily linked with shyness, which actually refers to the fear of social judgment – something that may apply to both introverted and extroverted people.
To recognize introversion for what it truly is, it is worthwhile examining Carl Jung’s theory on different personality types. Often titled as one of the fathers of psychology along with Sigmund Freud, Jung was the one who first conceived of introversion and extroversion through his theory on psychological types. The Myers-Briggs Test Indicator (MBTI), which popularized the notion of intro/extroversion, is actually based on his typology. One thing to note, though, is that there is no clear dichotomy. Jung himself claimed that “there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert” as “such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” The terms introversion and extroversion simply denote the source of energy (internal or external) and the focus of attention (inner or outer world). According to Dr. Marty Olsen Laney in her book “The Introvert Advantage,” extroverts are like solar panels; being alone is a low point as they are energized from highly stimulating environments. On the other hand, introverts can be seen as rechargeable batteries, requiring a restorative niche every now and then to restore their energy levels. The different foci of attention make introverts more comfortable when reflecting in the inner world.
Although introversion and extroversion are not absolute distinctions, they compose a significant part of our identities, helping determine how we view ourselves and how others see us. However, there has been a largely unbalanced approach to the spectrum. “Introverts have their own advantages, which often fail to be recognized because of their introversion,” points out Kim. Keeping Jung’s typology in mind, her assertion carries weight. As introverts naturally spend more time in reflection, they tend to think deeper and harder. According to a 2001 article in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” by Matthew Lieberman and Robert Rosenthal, introverts are not that good at multitasking. As such, by fully concentrating on one task at a time rather than “multitasking” – switching between multiple tasks without actually settling on one – they tend to be more productive. Also, as they prefer intimate conversations, they are able to build and maintain deep and genuine relationships. Another is the art of solitude, a key ingredient to creativity and originality which van Gogh, Chopin, Edison, J. K. Rowling, Steve Wozniak and Dr. Seuss all attest to.
Introverted leaders, redefining the formula for success
Amidst the prevailing extrovert ideal, there are noteworthy introverted leaders who realized their potential by building on their personal strengths to formulate a unique style of leadership. Abraham Lincoln, one of the most respected U.S. presidents to date, is a prime example. Most noted for preserving the union in the midst of a civil war and for abolishing the institution of slavery, Lincoln was also known to have been a prolific reader, quiet and modest by nature. The Gettysburg Address, the defining speech that articulated the spirit of the American nation, is one of his major contributions. When asked how long it took him to write the piece, Lincoln is said to have replied, “All my life.” In his case, deep introspection and humility were assets rather than liabilities to his leadership. By deeply contemplating on his inner convictions, he was able to come back to the community he belonged, ready to stand for the principles he believed in.
For a more contemporary example, Bill Gates is another introvert who has been able to transform his perceived weakness to strength. As the founder of Microsoft, he has become an iconic figure of the information technology revolution. He is also known for being a philanthropist, adopting ambitious humanitarian causes. Most people would perceive such a leader as a natural extrovert. Surprisingly enough, he is a professed introvert who loves reading and spending time on his own. As a matter of fact, he describes his annual week-long sabbatical, during which he takes some alone time to ponder technological and social trends, as his source of inspiration.
America is not the only place where introverted leaders have been able to advance beyond their glass ceilings and rise to the top. According to a study conducted by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2004 on the “Characteristics of Domestic CEOs,” 45% reported that they were ambiverts*, 19.1% extraverts, and 35.9% introverts. Such results stand out in the midst of an era of extroverted conformity as the number of reported introverts nearly doubles the reported extroverts, thus implying that there are a lot more introverts than commonly known in the highest ranks of Korean businesses.
*Ambiverts: People who fall in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum
The power of introverts
Then what are some of the relative strengths that introverts possess? One possible explanation comes from examining religious leaders like Timothy Keller. An introverted megachurch pastor at Redeemer Church in Manhattan, he describes his ministry’s key focus as getting deeply involved with “the hurts of people’s lives.” He spends time with such people in nursing homes, prisons, and funeral homes to act on his love for his congregation. According to Lee Yoon-hee (Counselor, Yonsei Counseling Center), any profession that aims to educate and serve people requires patience and attention to detail, which comes more naturally to introverts. “Educators and spiritual leaders need to be able to understand their mentees deeply and discover their hidden talents. To do so, they need to be able to make a long term commitment to be there for them. This is more natural for introverts, who are great at building and maintaining intimate relationships.”
“You can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit,” once said Harry Truman. This rings true with the “Level 5 leaders” that Jim Collins highlights in his influential book “Good to Great.” After studying an extensive range of quantitative and qualitative data on acquisitions, executive compensation, business strategies, corporate culture, and leadership styles of 11 good companies that transformed into great companies, he found out that one key factor were leaders who built enduring institutions by caring less about their egos and more about the institutions they were building. Fiercely dedicated to the institutional advancement, introverted leaders are also more willing to consider and reflect grassroots initiatives in policy directions. In 2010, an interesting study was published by Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and fellow researchers on “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage.” They discovered that whereas extraverted leaders saw proactive employees as a threat to the status hierarchy, introverted leaders tended to be more responsive and open to suggestions from their employees. The overall morale and productivity was enhanced as introverted leaders “reacted to other’s visions and ideas instead of initiating one’s own” by showing their willingness to make necessary changes.
Introverted leaders tend to be more contemplative and cautious in taking risks. Boykin Curry (Managing Director, Eagle Capital) in an interview for an October 2008 “Newsweek” article, argued that the market crash of 2008 can be seen as a result of investing too much power in aggressive risk takers – which extroverts tend to be more susceptible to in the process of seeking external rewards. “For 20 years, the DNA of nearly every financial institution had morphed dangerously. Each time someone at the table pressed for more leverage and more risk, the next few years proved them ‘right.’ … Meanwhile, anyone in power who hesitated, who argued for caution, was proved ‘wrong.’” All these excessive risks lead to a downfall as the market eventually collapsed. One can only wonder what would have been different had financial leaders heeded such warnings from “the cautious types.”
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Moses and Aaron, biblical figures who lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land; Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., leaders of the civil rights movement which sought to end racial prejudice in America; Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, innovators and co-founders of Apple Computers. Most of the time, the spotlight has gone to the extroverts. Yet, it is important to recognize the silent leaders that enabled such triumph. Although the current organization of space and human resources are optimized for extroverts and their successes are distinguished as models to emulate, we must also consider the often unrecognized power of introverted leaders. Extroverts and introverts, each has something to offer. It is only when we recognize the merits of people from both sides of the spectrum and encourage meaningful cooperation that we will truly rise to our unreached potential.
Quiz: Are you an introvert? *Susan Cain’s “Quiet”
Take a look at the following statements and see how many are true to you:
1. I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
2. I often prefer to express myself in writing.
3. I enjoy solitude.
4. I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame and status.
5. I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me.
6. People tell me that I’m a good listener.
7. I’m not a big risk taker.
8. I enjoy work that allows me to dive in with few interruptions.
9. I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale with only or two close friends or family members.
10. People describe me as soft-spoken or mellow.
11. I prefer not to show my work or discuss it with others until it is finished.
12. I dislike conflict.
13. I do my best work alone.
14. I tend to think before I speak.
15. I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself.
16. I often let calls go to voice mail.
17. If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do with one with too many things scheduled.
18. I don’t enjoy multitasking.
19. I concentrate easily.
20. In classrooms, I prefer lectures to seminars.
*This informal quiz is not a scientifically validated test. However, these questions are based on characteristics of introversion commonly accepted by contemporary researchers. Generally, the more statements that describe you, the more introverted you are.*