No matter how the wind howls, the mountain will not bow to it - Chinese proverb. In western society we have become accustomed to the notion that heroic individuals with brilliant assertive personalities are the ones that should lead our organisations. But with the 2008 financial crisis and scandals like Enron linked to overconfidence, should be be taking more heed of quiet leaders?
I’ve recently read a very interesting book called “Quiet” by Susan Cain. In it, she explores our cultural preconceptions about the introvert and the extrovert, highlighting their dualist nature. How western society promotes and sells the dream of extraversion - the individual with wit, charm, charisma, and courage. Yet, we are blind to the fact that many of the people who have changed the world for the better, or created high performance organisations, are introverts. Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Warren Buffet, and even Elon Musk are just a few examples. Why then, do we continue promote the notion that leaders must be social, likable, outspoken, and quick thinking?
The first thing to understand is that introspective people and those who enjoy the extroverted lifestyle are not good or bad at certain things, including leadership. Both kinds of people have certain styles. The issue lies in our tendency to lean towards leaders who can fulfill a heroic narrative that has become the cultural norm in modern organisations. As Susan puts it in her book, we have been immersed in a culture of personality for so long, that we have forgotten about the culture of character. Organisations can reap great benefits once they learn how to listen, observe, and focus on a deeper form of thinking. Quiet leaders can be a source of competitive advantage in an ever cutthroat knowledge economy.
Over reliance on a single type of leadership seems to be a recurring failure of businesses, and their leaders. The type of leaders we promote and admire today seem brave and brash, they have the anwser to everything, they talk with conviction, and charm us into believing their vision is the way to go. This of course, isn’t a bad thing, unless there is no substance behind it all. This goes back to the culture of personality. Our society adores these kind of people because that is what is sold to us as success. It has become so extreme that many people admired in society have no character at all, and make a living simply by selling a personality. When there is no substsance behind your heroic leader, the only thing you’re getting is a good story.
Those that we would normally place in the introverted bucket turn out to have some pretty useful skills. They have a greater ability to stick with a task and see it through. They are more deliberate in their thinking, ensuring many angles are covered. They have a keen sense that grants them the ability to identify weak signals of danger, in turn allowing them to diagnose problems before they get too big. They are more empathic, therefore can place themselves in a customer’s shoes more easily. They are deliberate listeners, ensuring they pay genuine attention to the needs and wants of their team members. These skills, among others, are why introverts make great leaders.
One size doesn’t fit all, yet our organisations are set up as if this were true. I’ve seen a lot of organisations mention that they want their employees to be able to be themselves at work. But how can this happen if the workplace is entirely setup for extraversion? How we speak, the language we use, and the stories we tell are important. They may seem mundane, but by constantly telling stories of percieved heroic leadership, we lose sight of other kinds of leadership. We need to ensure that we reintroduce stories of people with character alongside the stories of people with personality. We need our stories to be about humans, not heroes. Doing this will shine a light on a whole new cohort of leaders that organisations are overlooking.