I have long called introverts the “quietly brilliant” and I was not surprised but I was concerned when I found that Ones & Dilchert’s 2009 study showed that only 2% of CEOs were introverts. Does that mean that introverts should never aspire to leadership? Is there a glass ceiling for introverts? Or is opportunity knocking but unrecognized?
I decided to seek out those introverts who had made it to the C-suite to determine what were the keys to their success, so I am currently spending the year doing interviews for my upcoming book, The Introvert CEO.
Along the way, I found a study by researchers at ghSmart, who spent 10 years creating the CEO Genome Project, resulting in a database of 17,000 executives, including 2000 CEOs. They found over half the successful CEOs were introverts. Unfortunately, that still isn’t a large number.
Nevertheless, we may be on our way to a cultural shift in the United States – away from the sole reliance on the dynamic and charismatic leader, and incorporating the other, quieter half of the population. I certainly hope so; here are some points I have found that are displayed by introvert CEOs.
Successful Introvert CEOs are:
Predictable and reliable
What might initially seem dull is actually an asset. Being inventive and continually surprising may be exciting to observe and have a certain amount of publicity value; however, the CEOs who lead companies that steadily progress towards success are deliberate and thoughtful under pressure, especially when engaging with others, despite the emotions surrounding the stressful event.
Their egos don’t get in the way of progress; they know they don’t have all the answers and are willing to build a diverse team that supplements their own talents. They use their abilities for the good of the team, rather than for their self-serving desires.
- using the introvert skill of patient listening.
- being willing to incorporate other people’s ideas into the overall plan.
- being willing to engage in constructive debate.
This last point – engaging in constructive debate – is one characteristic that separates your average introvert from the top leaders. It is a skill that is uncomfortable for many quiet people, who are often very concerned about other people’s feelings, but it is indispensable for a true leader. Luckily, it is a skill that can be learned.
Pursuers of many interests
Most of the successful introverts I know have pursued deep backgrounds in a number of fields that are totally unrelated to their professions.
Successful introvert CEOs are no different: they don’t spend all their time talking, reading about and discussing topics related to their industry. Instead, they spend about half their time pursuing topics that seemingly have little relationship to their work: history, geography, science, music, art.
What is the payoff for this breadth? This diverse background can give one a broader view of the world, able to see many more possibilities for triggering innovative thinking. It can also make it easier to connect with people from diverse backgrounds, recognize their excellence even though it is different from one’s own, and add their viewpoints and experiences to the mix to create a company with more flexibility and a wider range of options.
The belief that the person who speaks up first (or most) is the best leader has been dominant in our choice of leadership for too long. Let’s hope that we are entering an era in which the value of the quiet, thoughtful person is appreciated. After all, in the business world the person who is able to get their company to generate the most revenue is, in the long run, the winner. And that’s what these introvert CEOs are doing – and what the introverts in your organization could be doing, given the opportunity.
Do you want to unlock the revenue-generating potential of your quietly brilliant employees, finding new sources of leadership and innovation? Are you an introvert concerned and puzzled because your upward mobility has stalled? Let’s have a conversation! Lynette@QuietBrillianceConsulting.com
Jim Collins, in his 2001 bestseller Good to Great, was one of the first to dispel conventional wisdom that successful leaders climb to the top because they’re naturally outgoing. He found that the most successful companies rarely had so-called celebrity CEOs, but rather had CEOs who were self-effacing and humble to a fault. Charisma was a handicap, he concluded.