Healthy Leaders


Do Extroverts Make Better Leaders?

Susan JensenSusan Jensen

Do extroverts make better leaders? Susan Cain researches this question in her best-selling book Quiet and in her 2014 TED talk “The Power of Introverts.”  The answer is important for people engaged in leader development, and the book a valuable resource. Below are some highlights that I hope will be thought-provoking.

Scientists have spent many years studying whether there is a physiological basis for temperament.  After literally thousands of experiments using everything from saliva tests to fMRI scanners, it has been definitely proven that an extrovert or introvert temperament is inborn, with biologically based behavioral and emotional patterns. This is distinct from personality which includes temperament, cultural influences and personal life experiences.

The eminent psychologist Hans Eysenck discovered that a part of the brain stem regulates the amount of sensory stimulation that flows into the brain, and that introverts have wide open information channels causing them to be flooded with stimulation and over-aroused, whereas extroverts have tighter channels, making them prone to under-arousal.   More than a thousand studies have tested Eysenck’s work, and whatever the underlying cause [or causes] there’s a host of evidence that introverts are more sensitive than extroverts to various kinds of stimulation, from coffee to a loud bang to the dull roar of a networking event ‒ and that introverts and extroverts often need very different levels of stimulation to function at their best. Professor Jerome Kagan’s research proved (among other things) that introversion and extroversion have no connection with whether or not a person is a caring, empathetic individual.

In the US and to some extent Europe and Australia, but less so in Asia and Africa, extroversion has been elevated to what Cain calls the Extrovert Ideal – the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action, risk-taking, certainty and quick decisions, works well in teams, and socializes in groups.

Between 2004 and 2006, 20% of the top three executives at Fortune 500 companies were graduates of the Harvard Business School, which one graduate describes as “the spiritual capital of extroversion.” While HBS has produced many successful public figures, Cain writes that contrary to the HBS model of vocal leadership, the ranks of effective CEOs turn out to be filled with introverts like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

During her research at HBS, Cain discovered that some Asian-American students were uncomfortable with the expectation of constant extroverted behavior in emerging leaders. She followed this up by interviewing an Asian-American consultant who helps such students develop practices that enable them to develop extrovert social skills.  The consultant, Professor Preston Ni, told Cain, “In Asian cultures, there’s often a subtle way to get what you want. It’s not aggressive, but it can be very determined and very skillful. In the end, much is achieved because of it. Aggressive power beats you up; soft power wins you over … In the long run, if the idea is good, people shift. If the cause is just and you put your heart into it, it’s almost a universal law: you will attract people who want to share your cause. Soft power is quiet persistence.”

In Quiet Cain also asks: “Does God Love Introverts? – An Evangelical’s Dilemma”.  After visiting a California mega-church and researching leadership in evangelical churches in the US, she writes: “Like HBS, evangelical churches often make extroversion a prerequisite for leadership, sometimes explicitly. ‘The priest must be … an extrovert who enthusiastically engages members and newcomers, a team player,’ reads an ad for a position as associate rector of a 1400 member parish. A senior priest at another church confesses online that he has advised parishes recruiting a new rector to ask what his or her Myers-Briggs score is. ‘If the first letter isn’t an E [for Extrovert],’ he tells them, ‘think twice … I’m sure our Lord was [an extrovert].’ Cain finishes this section of the book “… just as HBS expects its students to be talkers because this is seen as a prerequisite of leadership, so have many evangelicals come to associate godliness with sociability.”

Cain concludes that both types of temperament are important and the Extrovert Ideal must be abandoned if we are to have balanced leadership in society. This view is supported by Scripture as the Bible records great leaders of both temperaments ‒ Moses was the meekest man on earth (Num. 12:3), and the people at Lystra attempted to worship Paul as Mercury because he was the chief speaker (Acts 14:12).

Finally, if you don’t already know whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, you might like to take this quick test:

Recharging your energy batteries

When you need to recharge do you:

A.  Prefer to withdraw to a quiet place and do things like reading, hobbies or walking in natural environments?

B.  Prefer to seek out stimulating environments where there are other people and a buzz of energy?

In work and leisure situations do you:

A.  Like to work either alone or with a partner in a private office on a project you care deeply about? Mostly prefer to spend leisure time with loved ones in a calm setting?

B.  Like to work with a team organizing and running a team-building workshop or leading a meeting or networking event? Mostly like to spend leisure time with loved ones and new people at higher-energy social events?

While there are always exceptions, if you answered A to both questions you most likely have an introvert temperament, and if you answered B you are most likely an extrovert. If you are balanced approximately equally between the two, you are what Cain calls an ambivert, a position she considers desirable because it means you have learned and are able to choose how you behave in different situations regardless of your inborn temperament.

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