What is the difference between extroversion and introversion, and what might it have to do with leadership? From a science perspective, one key difference is found in the way individuals respond to the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine. Neuroscientists have found dopamine to be a greater motivator of extroverts, while acetylcholine is better suited for introverts. In other words, extroverts take more energy from outward stimulation, and introverts prefer a more inward approach to recharging. While stereotypes abound for introverts (e.g., they don’t like being around people; their antisocial nature is really a manifestation of rudeness), many have debunked these myths of character.
Susan Cain, a prominent author and speaker, has argued in favor of introverts, illustrating the strengths found in those who favor calm environments, not least of which is a distinct disposition for leadership. In a culture where extroversion is typically linked with leadership, however, Cain believes that introverts and their potential contributions are largely overlooked due to the perceived superiority of charisma and group dynamics, a trend that begins in grade school.
Cain’s early research on introversion resulted in a TED Talk with more than 15,000,000 views and a New York Times bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In her book, she presents a case for the creative capacity of introverts and the ways in which innovation often best occurs by thinking alone versus in groups.
Leaders will find it interesting to consider that anywhere from 33 percent to 50 percent of their workforce are introverted. This statistic, provided by Cain, is especially noteworthy when thinking of all the people in any given business or organization who may have ideas for improvement and growth.
Part of leadership is recognizing potential and appointing other leaders, and introversion, at times, can feel like an obstacle to those called on to lead. Here are a few of the challenges that leadership positions present to introverts and some suggestions for overcoming them.
Facing the paralyzing effects of self-doubt
Self-doubt is not something that only introverts deal with; it happens at anytime for anyone. Sometimes it comes without even thinking about it, and other times it’s the result of comparison. There is always someone “more (insert the blank).” Building confidence can help with this, but success ultimately comes by embracing rather than eliminating self-doubt.
Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, led research that revealed self-perception is generally either fixed or has room to grow. Adopting the latter mindset is a valuable strategy for introverts seeking to improve their leadership skills. In essence, believe that leadership can be learned, and start studying.
Establishing and increasing public perception
Transitioning into a leadership role does not always mean that people immediately recognize the new title. Getting the new office and the new email signature can happen pretty quickly, but becoming a leader in the eyes of coworkers and employees takes time. One of the best ways to support this transition is to solicit feedback, and often.
Questions introverts might ask of others include how to present themselves authoritatively in public, how to communicate openly and effectively, and how to build the trust of others. Leaders will also find that surrounding themselves with others who have complementary skills and attributes is an invaluable strategy. One example of a good introvert-extrovert balance is Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook.
Overcoming a shortage of leadership skills
A lack of leadership skills will instill self-doubt in just about anyone. Overcoming that shortage is, again, a process of learning, developing skills, and being okay with imperfection. The latter point often involves having the humility to admit the need for help, and asking for help is easier when strong relationships are in place. Thus, one way that individuals might lighten the load of becoming a leader is to first focus on building a solid network of communication.
Staying true to yourself while doing the job
Because of the strong connection between leadership and extroversion in society, many introverts feel at a disadvantage because acting the part isn’t true to their authentic selves. Overcoming this obstacle requires redefining leadership and focusing on influencing others in a way that moves the business or effort forward.
Introverts will still need to step out of their comfort zones (e.g., speaking in front of large groups), but this doesn’t mean changing their identity. A company speech can be just as effective in three to five minutes as it can in a full-blown, hour-long production.
Adding new responsibility that drains energy
In order to get the right amounts of acetylcholine, introverts typically benefit from a certain amount of the day spent in solitude. This number will vary from person to person. Leadership inevitably comes with greater responsibility and greater time constraints, leaving less space on the daily calendar for recharging.
When facing these new conditions, introverts can turn to the tried and true methods of daily planning and exercise. Keeping a schedule and honoring it and dedicate time to physical activity will help new leaders make the transition.