Given the nature of business—and media—it's not surprising that extrovert leaders often grab the limelight. Daring strategies, an eye for opportunism and hyperactive PR ensure business leaders like Richard Branson, Larry Ellison and Mark Cuban are rarely out of the headlines.
Given their predominance, it's easy to assume that business success is reserved only for the bold and outgoing. The reality is that very few truly successful businesspeople are out-and-out extroverts. It's just that by their nature, extroverts get noticed (and written about) much more often.
In my own experience working with business leaders over a 30-year period, the number of successful introvert leaders exceeds that of successful extroverts by a ratio of about four to one. And even though the extroverts are by definition more memorable, it's often the introverts who create longer-lasting, legacy-leaving success.
Although the ways in which introvert leadership differs from extrovert leadership are complex, there are a number of clear distinctions that any business leader can emulate. Here are the four most powerful secrets of the introvert leader:
1. The power of focus. Extrovert leaders often suffer from "shiny new object" syndrome: Passionate and committed to an extreme degree, the target of their passion can change in an instant. Restlessly creative, and comfortable with risk, the extrovert leader loves to start new initiatives—then another, and another—with the end result of spreading the organization thin and exhausting those with whom they work.
The introvert leader, on the other hand, tends not to have the same relentless drive for variety, and instead focuses intently on achieving one goal before launching another—achieving serial success rather than attempting multiple parallel successes.
David Hieatt, a classic introvert leader and founder of the Do Lectures and Hiut Denim, calls this "doing one thing well." Although he's the founder of one of the most successful and innovative multi-disciplinary conferences in the world, you'll rarely see David onstage or seeking the limelight.
2. The strength of the team. Although not every high-profile business leader suffers from it, there is a dark side to being an extrovert: the need to personally "own" the organization's success. Aware of—and reveling in—their own publicity, the extrovert leader's need for acclamation can become destructive, specifically by forcing out other high-performers who threaten the extrovert leader's preeminence, and demotivating their senior team, who rarely get to share the spotlight.
Contrast this scenario with the introvert leader's mindset: aware of their own inhibitions, they not only value having a strong team around them, they see it as a distinct competitive advantage. The introvert leader doesn't feel threatened by high-performing colleagues, but instead recognizes the value in complimentary styles.
Take, for example, Valve Software, one of the most successful game designers of recent years. When you visit the About Us section of a company's website, you typically expect to see glowing biographies of the highly successful founders. But Valve's page instead offers the mantra: "No bosses, no middle management, no bureaucracy. Just highly motivated peers coming together to make cool stuff."
3. The strategic value of anonymity. One of the advantages of having a charismatic, extrovert leader is that your business is guaranteed a high profile. One of the downsides of having a charismatic, extrovert leader is, well, that your business is guaranteed a high profile. With the acres of print and hours of airtime devoted to the likely next move of extrovert-led organizations such as Microsoft, Virgin, Sun Microsystems and Netflix, there's little mystique or ambiguity about what they're likely to do next.
Contrast this with, say, See's Candy, Cort Rentals, Acme Brick or Shaw Industries—all companies which have consistently outperformed the market, and all of which fly under the radar. Why the similarities? They're all Berkshire Hathaway companies, marked by a distinct Berkshire Hathaway trait: They're managed by CEOs (Brad Kinstler, Paul Arnold, Dennis Knautz and Vance Bell, respectively) who actively spurn the limelight, preferring instead to work behind the scenes.
4. The freedom from narrative. The combination of a charismatic extrovert leader and a publicly-stated goal often produces a very expensive side-effect: prolonged over-commitment to what isn't working. The extrovert leader makes a typically charged commitment to a particular course of action (say, Steve Ballmer's introduction of Window's Vista), and then, because their own ego and the passion with which they made the initial commitment, they wait far too long before admitting that the strategy isn't working.
Being an introvert leader means you rarely need to take back highly charged public commitments. In essence, you're freed from the constrictions of narrative: If something isn't working, you can change it, with little cost to ego or perception.
Which type of leader do you think has the most potential for success?
A version of this article was originally published on June 19, 2012.
Photo credit: Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock