Business World

Saturday 18 November 2017

Our best leaders aren't necessarily extroverts

Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Last Sunday's All-Ireland Senior Football Final may not have been the most skilful match of the championship, but it was compelling, heart-stopping stuff.

Yet on the sideline were two calm, authoritative, low-key managers, who rarely showed what they were really thinking.

James Horan and Jim Gavin are two quiet-spoken, even introverted personalities, who despite their low-key approach, command respect and display leadership. The GAA is full of such figures from Brian Cody to Jack O'Connor.

Many of them display some of the qualities of the introvert: not talking for its own sake, being a good listener, preferring to work in small groups, not rushing to decisions and thinking before speaking.

But what about the world of business? Are the best chief executives, introverted thinkers or extroverted charismatic leaders who get things done?

A book published earlier this year by Susan Cain called 'Quiet – The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking' deals with different personality types in general, but ends up examining the world of business personalities in some detail.

She questions how leading business schools in top universities in America promote the values and benefits of the extrovert, yet chief executives with introvert tendencies often perform better.

Extroverts are able to think and talk on their feet. They enjoy large groups. They are comfortable with confrontation and can often impose their view very effectively on others.

She traces how American culture switched in the early to mid-20th Century from admiring the traits of character to those of personality.

Without introverts she says, there wouldn't be the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, Yeats's 'The Second Coming' or 'Schindler's List'.

In corporate America, introverts include Bill Gates, Charles Schwab, and a raft of others.

Yet she found business schools that more than encouraged students to participate in discussion, but in her view, valued their very act of talking over waiting until they felt they had something to say.

She was concerned that the most influential colleges, that have produced the "brightest and the best" in American corporate life, were not adequately valuing the individualism and thoughtful approach that the introvert brings to the corporate world.

In Harvard Business School they sometimes get students to do an exercise where small groups are given a list of 20 things which might be important in saving your life if you were stuck in the American wilderness in winter. The groups must discuss them and rank them in order of importance.

The introvert group leader would be more inclined to ask the group if anyone had relevant experience and maybe knew what they were talking about. The extrovert leader will do more of the talking, less listening and often score worse.

Cain cited the research of a Wharton management professor called Adam Grant. He questioned a lot of the research linking extroversion with leadership suggesting it didn't tell the whole story.

He had a theory about introverted leadership and what it could bring. In one study Grant divided 163 college students into competing teams charged with folding as many T-shirts as possible in 10 minutes. Unknown to the participants each team contained two actors.

In some teams the actors followed the leaders' instructions, in others the two actors delivered a routine where one said, "I wonder if there is a better way of doing this." The other replied he had a friend who knew a really fast way of folding T-shirts and it would take just two minutes to show them.

The introverted leaders were 20pc more likely to follow the suggestion – and their teams had 24pc better results than when the leaders were extroverts. But when the group was not proactive and just did what the leader said, extrovert-led groups outperformed by 22pc.

Our culture is mimicking that of America more and more. We aspire to be extroverts. We marvel at the "confidence" of young children on the 'Late Late Toy Show' for being able to perform on front of so many people.

But surely real confidence is about being self-assured enough to do things your own way – to question the values of the crowd and be comfortable in your own skin.

Television programmes like 'The Apprentice' reward those who speak up and act quickly, when in fact in the real world of business, neither is always required. Real business is done in private and in small groups.

Over the last 20 years I have interviewed many chief executives, senior executives and middle managers. Many of the most successful builders of great Irish companies display some of the best qualities of the introvert.

I am thinking of people like Denis Brosnan, the former managing director of Kerry Group, an attentive listener, who makes strategic decisions based on calculated risk. He doesn't talk for the sake of it. He waits until he has something to say and never wastes words. Others with similar tendencies include Michael Chadwick of Grafton Group and Martin Naughton of Glen Dimplex.

The archetypal introvert chief executive was probably Microsoft's Bill Gates, who was a giant of global business. His successor, Steve Ballmer, with his famous stage dance shouting "I love this company", was the archetypal extrovert, who didn't do as well.

In truth everyone has both tendencies in them. Cain even identifies a group who are introverts trying to be extroverts. How many conferences or corporate social occasions have we been at where we cringed at someone attempting to do just that? Surely it is better to play to your strengths.

Some businesses require extroverted leadership at certain times. In Ireland, perhaps the most striking extroverted leadership figure is Michael O'Leary. And look at the extraordinary job he has done at Ryanair. He might not have been the person to found it, but nobody could have run it better.

It seems that university business schools may espouse the benefits of the charismatic extrovert chief executive, because if you don't make yourself heard, you will never make it up the ladder to the boardroom in the first place. Nobody will know that you are there.

But great companies are often founded by entrepreneurs with introvert tendencies who wouldn't be seen dead in a university business school, but are more likely to have one named after them, because of their achievements.

Irish Independent

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