Martin Edwards: Do introverts make better leaders?

You don't have to be a charismatic, attention-seeking, high-networking socialiser to run a charity, writes our self-confessed introvert columnist

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

In a room full of third-sector leaders, do you struggle to get a word in edgeways amid all the extroverts? I do, and it reminds me of that old workplace cartoon that says "you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps". With leadership roles, you don’t have to be extrovert, but…

But what if it doesn’t help? What if the leadership ideal is wrong? Do introverts make better leaders? And, if so, how will they ever get selected over more dazzling, outgoing rivals?

Research has shown that reactive staff are more productive when led by extroverts, who give more frequent direction; but proactive staff perform better when led by introverts, who give more space for colleagues to shine.

Yet leaders, we are told, should be vocal, a strong presence in a group, charismatic, gregarious and in their element at conferences, holding forth at the lectern and working the room afterwards.

The cult of personality doesn’t help. Think of the forests of newsprint devoted to loud or charismatic leaders such as Jose Mourinho, Gordon Ramsay, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Richard Branson and, in our sector, the once feted Camila Batmanghelidjh.

As a chief executive, I am an introvert in what is deemed an extrovert’s role. I feel drained by situations involving a lot of stimulus, such as gatherings with constant "hail fellow well met" contact. (So please don’t all invite me to your conferences or forums.) I can do it, but I’m out of my element.

It does not necessarily follow that introverts are shy wallflowers. Just as you can have shy extroverts, such as Freddie Mercury, introverts can be highly capable and confident – Neil Armstrong – or great public speakers: Barack Obama, for example.

Introverts are harder to read, but are more likely to be consistent, composed, considered and therefore trusted. They prefer building lasting one-to-one relationships, listening well and conveying calm, clear purpose. In our sector that skill set can raise tons of money from major donors.

Introverts aren’t pushovers. They have far fewer confrontations, but when pushed they can take a stand. Think of the the quiet civil rights heroine Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus.

Introverts crave regular time alone, when they recharge and do much of their best thinking. They are capable of hugely radical thought, like Charles Darwin or Clement Attlee, but might have more doubt and seek more evidence, so they tend to reflect carefully before making key decisions. Darwin, for example, delayed publishing his conclusions about natural selection for many years.

Extroverts, by contrast, tend to experience higher reward feelings from activities that involve risk. This might make them more likely to risk it all, like David Cameron with referendums or Bill Clinton with his trousers. Introverts are not necessarily risk-averse, but might take fewer unconsidered risks. Which would you rather have running your charity?

But introverts are far more likely to be underestimated. That’s good if you want to steal a march on competitors, but a big drawback in a job interview, where the panel can mistake considered thoughtfulness for a lack of spark.

Profiling tools should lead to a more nuanced view of candidates, but tools are only as good as the people using them. Inexpert selectors often fall back on qualities that match the extrovert leadership ideal. Desirable: confidence in group situations, networking, persuasion and a tendency towards overview. Undesirable: liking regular time alone, choosing reading over socialising, investigation and evaluation roles, and mastery of detail.

It’s a sliding scale: not every extrovert is a Farage or a Trump. But what if too much charisma gets a charity into trouble through over-dependence on one attention-seeking character? Who wants to work for a leader who has forgotten how to listen? Or what if not mastering the detail ends in tears, like the hands-off approach to fundraising agencies taken by careless charity bosses?

Charities need leaders who know which detail matters: appeal methods, financial trends, reserves policies, safety audits, complaint investigations and key points buried in client and staff surveys.

Of course, you must be able to "sell it" too. Theresa May is an introvert who took an apparently safe risk based on clear polling data, only to be undone by woeful communication.

All this might indicate that the ideal leader could be the type of introvert who is adept at public communication.

If you are selecting a charity leader, look beyond the stereotype. Look for radical but evidence-based thinking; feedback on their speeches; results when one-on-one with major donors; humble but steely determination; flexible, evaluated services; disasters averted by listening to critics; and senior staff turnover on their watch.

If the candidate is a chief executive, read their annual report. Studies show that people who write their signature larger are more extrovert and that chief executives with larger signatures (controlled for length of name) in their annual reports tend to run less successful organisations.

By the way, I am not looking for a job, my signature in our report is moderate and if you meet me at a conference and I seem comfortable networking, I’m faking it. I’d rather be at home reading the evidence in Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House. In his decade with the charity he has increased turnover from £500,000 to £7m and led a proactive team to build two children’s hospices. He likes public speaking but might leave early in the networking scrum afterwards

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