Quiet Leadership


Can introverts be successful leaders?

That’s one question that, in my opinion, Susan Cain seeks to answer in her incredibly fascinating book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

As an introvert, this question really resonated with me. I’ve always had an interest in business and politics – it’s a huge reason why I moved 5000 miles in order to be closer to the action. But after working in Corporate America for over a year, I’ve often questioned whether I’m cut out for the field.

The Extrovert Ideal

Cain begins by discussing modern society’s love affair with the Extrovert:

It’s the belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Introversion – along with its cousin’s sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – are now a second-class personality, somewhere between a disappointment and pathology.

Talkative people are rated as smarter, better looking, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent.

In the world of business and politics, it’s not surprising that there exists a perception, fueled in large part by the media, that leaders are those with aggressive, brash and have a larger-than-life personality; i.e., Jack Welch or Donald Trump. You don’t hear about, at least in my opinion, leaders with opposing qualities: laid-back, reticent and understated.

The Power of Quiet Leadership

To my surprise, Cain’s book rattles off countless studies that debunk the myth of charismatic leadership. Three examples that I found noteworthy to research further were the following:

Preston Ni, a Communications Studies Professor, calls “soft power” as leadership “by water rather than by fire…Aggressive power beats you up; soft power wins you over. If the cause is just and you put 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 their day-to-day, person-to-person interactions.”

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins found that “the greatest companies were led by Level 5 Leaders describes by their employees as: quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated. We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”

Adam Grant, a Management Professor at Wharton, found that “extroverted leaders enhance group performance when employees are passive; introverted leaders are more effective with proactive employees. Extroverts can be so intent on putting their own stamp that they risk losing others’ good ideas and allowing workers to lapse into passivity. Introverts – because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations – are more likely to hear and implement suggestions.”

So Is It Possible?

Cain writes, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.” As an introverted aspiring entrepreneur and businessman living in an extroverted world, I can say with conviction that – yes – Cain has accomplished her goals. After reading her book, I do think it’s possible to rise above the chaos and noise to become a successful leader, even in business and politics, as an introvert.