The best chief executives and leaders are often thought to be vocal, consummate networkers and extroverted. Tesse Akpeki reviews a new book which challenges this assumption.
I have been spending the last few months studying, writing and reflecting on the quality and impact of excellent leadership and the tools that can help sustain it.
Reflection and being in a quiet space does not come to me easily, yet I know that I have had to go to that place in order to achieve the goal that I have set for myself. Anyone who knows me will attest that I am a raving extrovert. I get my energy and my stimulation by being with people. Networking is an absolute boon for me. I just love it. A good party for me is sheer bliss.
Yet I know that my study experience which I have combined with travelling to hear other people’s perspectives has been an extremely rich experience. Being in the States, rural Canada and more recently in Nigeria has brought to life the personal and professional challenges that organisations and people confront as they aim to lead well. Nigeria in particular was interesting.
It is experiencing terrorist activity in the north, in January had the worst riots in 20 years and has seen its own share of kidnapping activity. Yet I had to go out there and not be deterred by what may happen. As I listened to the great leaders out there, I learnt how they coped daily with uncertainty by keeping their eyes on the goal and purpose that they felt they needed to fulfil. Many of the people I met had an introverted preference – they got their stimulation by looking inside of themselves, having alone time and charging their batteries by being in a still, reflective place. Is one preference better than the other?
Recently I came across the work of Susan Cain who has written a book entitled ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’. Susan argues that society unreasonably favours extroverts. At work she says, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions even though introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes. Teachers she continues believe the ideal student is an extrovert even though introverted students get better grades. In her opinion just because you are quiet during a meeting rather than plunging in with loud opinions, doesn’t mean you are passive or have fewer ideas. Introverts are likely to spend more time thinking, comparing and take more informed and balanced risks.
At a leadership development event, I met a chief executive who admitted she hated networking, but felt she needed to do it because it came with the job. She found that spending time mentally getting ready got her through the cringiness of the networking experience. I am sure she is not alone in this. Cain’s work shows that introverts can dress up as extroverts to tick the success criteria attached to their roles.
In her talk at TED, an American non-profit focusing on ideas, entitled ‘the Power of Introverts’, Cain reminds us of the individuals who fall in between the spectrum, termed ambiverts, they are able to achieve a kind of balance. There was huge laughter when Susan said: "There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas".
Interestingly Chris Anderson, the owner of TED, tweeted that Susan Cain’s TED talk smashed all of TED’s previous records for numbers of views in the first week of posting – currently over 1.6 million views since the talk went live on 2 March 2012.
Maybe Susan has hit a sweet spot! “We are at our most creative, our most insightful and our most energised when we’re allowed to be alone with our thoughts. Self-reflection is an activity that everyone – extroverts and introverts alike – need more of,” concluded Cain.
While I have struggled with being quiet and alone in the past few months, I have actually gained from the experience and will practice more of this ‘alone, reflective time’. Getting unplugged has been an enriching journey.
I believe that the world is a better place for having both introverts and extroverts. The diversity of the perspectives calls for balance and one is not better than the other - they are just different.