How Coaching Helps Introverts Develop Leadership Effectiveness

Gordon Ryan
August 15, 2016

In this article for Management Futures, occupational psychologist and coach, Gordon Ryan, explores how coaching can help introverts to recognise the strengths and limitations of extroverted and introverted behaviour and realise more of their potential.

Alex is an impressive executive with an exceptional track-record as a professional at the top of his game. We’re mid-conversation, trying to get to the heart of what would make the greatest difference to Alex, when he says, “I’m really not all that suited to leadership”. An interesting statement which we explored, with him articulating why he felt like this. We excluded a number of possibilities; was it confidence? No. Was it an inability to communicate? No. Was it a lack of strategic vision? No. Working through a selection of diagnostics we started to unlock where this sense he had about his suitability for leadership was coming from. The final conclusion? Alex was… an Introvert.

Alex is not alone. Half of the population have a preference for introversion. Unsurprisingly, some of these are senior managers and leaders. I have had a number of coachees struggling to reconcile their role as a leader and their personality preference for Introversion. Some, like Alex, even questioning whether being a leader is right for them and having a sense that they somehow lack the elusive and necessary ‘magic’ qualities for leadership supposedly arising from Extroversion.

Preference for Extroversion
In her book, ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, Susan Cain highlights how there may be a societal bias for extroversion which starts within the education system and continues into the workplace. The link between effective leadership and extroversion seems well-accepted* and is a feature of many leadership development programmes.  

However, have we created a self-fulfilling prophecy? One of the oldest of the leadership traditions is the ‘Charismatic Leader’. By its nature this style of leadership lends itself to extroversion. However, this raises an important question; do we find more extroverts in leadership positions because the Charismatic Leader paradigm still influences our ideas of what it takes to be an effective leader despite it being a very old notion of leadership?

What might it look like if we accepted Introversion more readily as a norm for the leadership population? What we recognise and value as ‘effective leadership’ may be very different. We might come to value more the quiet, contemplative and well thought-through clarity that may come from the introverted leader.

Definition versus description
The labels of extrovert or introvert can be problematic. We need to recognise they are not definitions that predetermine behaviour, they simply describe a broad preference for certain types of behaviour.  

And we must avoid over-simplification. Each of these broad preferences has within it a complex series of elements.  Some individuals may have stronger preferences within some of these elements than others.  For instance, some introverts are optimistic and socially confident in particular contexts – although both these elements are more typically a feature associated with extroversion. There are times when preferences on these individual elements are not aligned with our overall extroversion/introversion classification. However, in striving to make sense of the world, we tend to simplify our understanding of ourselves and others – and apply broad stereotypes or classifications such as extroversion or introversion.

Given this tendency to generalisation it is unsurprising that some introverted leaders feel concerned about how well suited they are to leading. Conversely, some chief executives talk of the loneliness of leadership – possibly something our ‘typical’ introverts may regard as welcome solitude. Maybe now is the time to reconsider our leadership stereotypes.

Acceptance & Commitment
Returning to Alex, the first step in being able to support him in moving on was to build a strong acceptance for those preferences that were strongest. He was able to reflect and understand how and when these have supported his success as a leader, and to understand that no preference is inherently beneficial all of the time in all situations! We then worked to build some practical strategies that enabled him to recognise when he was choosing a behavioural preference that may not be optimum to what he needed to achieve. We followed this with identifying some interventions to help him disrupt and question some of his own habits of thinking.

Strengths-based behaviour
The power of operating in line with our strengths and preferences, as promoted by Martin Seligman, makes a great deal of sense. However, there are times when we need to operate outside of these strengths in order to deliver what is required. Understandably, this can be uncomfortable.  

Alex began to gain conscious control over the behaviours he would need to use when outside his ‘comfort zone’ of strengths and preferences. Over time these behaviors would begin to feel less uncomfortable and give him better options.

De-sensitisation
Later, Alex was able to reflect that he had developed his ability to value fully his preferred strengths. He was also able to choose more consciously and confidently when it would be appropriate to use non-preferred behaviours. Ultimately this led to a reduction in feelings of anxiety and discomfort when using these behaviours.

In effect Alex was giving himself permission to behave in a way that he had previously believed was not naturally ‘Him’ – albeit for short, sustainable periods of time.  These previously under-used and avoided behaviours were becoming new habits that he could deploy to great benefit in his leadership role.

Conclusion
Being the most effective leader requires a degree of behavioural flexibility, self-awareness and situational sensitivity. This means growing our ability to operate using behaviours associated with both introversion and extroversion at different times and in the right context. However, our historical bias for extroversion, frequently reinforced in historical leadership research, may be limiting our ability to maximise our leadership potential.  A more inclusive and effective model of leadership can be supported by individually tailored coaching aimed at developing personal insight, helping our coachees to recognise both the strengths and limitations of extroverted and introverted behavior and thus realise more of their full potential.

* Judge, Bobo, Ilies & Gerhardt (2002) reported Extraversion being the most strongly related personality factor to leadership effectiveness.

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