It can be easy to overlook the quiet person in the room. But they may actually harbor qualities that can make them great leaders, according to Susan Cain.
Cain, a best-selling author and one of TED’s most popular speakers, has been discussing how people often misunderstand introverts and the qualities they possess for a decade now. At a “Talks at Google” lecture in 2012, she noted that introverts — who are often boxed into the stereotype of being shy, quiet and reserved — tend to be viewed as incapable of becoming leaders and inferior to their extroverted counterparts.
“The bias in our culture against introversion is so deep and so profound, and we internalize it at such an early age,” Cain, an introvert herself, said. She added that introverts are “routinely passed up” for leadership positions.
In a 2021 YouGov survey, 52% of Americans said they were more introverted than extroverted, with 12% calling themselves “completely introverted.” The actual definitions of introvert and extrovert differ from the stereotypes: According to Cain, extroverts crave high-stimulation environments, gaining energy from activities like meeting new people or going to parties.
By contrast, Cain said, introverts thrive in quieter and less stimulating environments, like smaller gatherings with close friends — and that shouldn’t disqualify them from leadership opportunities.
Here are three qualities of introverts that Cain believes can make them exceptional leaders:
Introverts can be more conservative about risk taking
Risk-taking is often regarded as vital to great leadership. But in reality, leaders shouldn’t take risks just for the adrenaline rush — and a more conservative approach to decision-making can help you identify smart risks worth taking, Cain said.
Introverts don’t usually ignore “warning signals” like extroverts do when contemplating a risky decision, from seeking a high-level promotion to investing in a risky asset, Cain said. They’re also less likely to make rash decisions that could end up harmful to themselves or those around them, she added.
“This is not to say that introverts don’t also take risks, because they do,” Cain said. “But they tend to be more slow and more circumspect about it.”
One of her go-to examples: Warren Buffett, a self-described introvert famous for sitting out on market bubbles that often suck in other investors, who has stated as far back as 1985 that his temperament is the key to his investing approach.
“You need a stable personality,” Buffett told PBS’ “Adam Smith’s Money World”that year. “You need a temperament that neither derives great pleasure from being with the crowd or against the crowd, because this is not a business where you take polls. It’s a business where you think.”
Introverts can be more creative
Decades-old research shows that “highly creative people” in both artistic and scientific fields are often introverted. Cain’s explanation is that most introverts are comfortable with solitude, or being alone: “That is the key component because solitude turns out to be a real catalyst to creativity.”
That’s not to say that extroverts aren’t creative — rather, Cain said, introverts are often more able to tap into a higher level of creativity. It’s human nature to mimic the opinions of those around you, Cain said, and being alone can help you tap into your own ideas, helping you access your creativity without distraction.
That can give introverts a leg up as leaders: High levels of creativity can help you come up with better ideas more regularly, and find unique solutions to problems.
Introverts can be better problem solvers
Those creative thinking skills are closely tied to another common introvert trait, according to Cain: the ability to effectively solve problems.
Introverts often process information more carefully than other people, and the closer scrutiny can help them arrive at better solutions. “The behavioral style that has you sitting still more, reflecting more, being more reserved, being more slow to process stuff,” Cain said.
In an Iranian study published in January, researchers asked a group of language translation students working on texts of more than 500 words to describe their thought processes out loud as they worked.
The study’s goal was to identify differences in problem-solving strategies between introverts and extroverts — and it ultimately found that the introverted students performed better, because they paused longer to carefully read the material and weigh multiple options for the best translation.
“This two-tier structure of how we view personality leads to a colossal waste of talent, and of energy and of happiness,” Cain said. “We need to be adopting much more of a yin and yang approach of balance between the two styles.”
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter
These Stanford experts say humor is the key to great leadership: ‘We can do serious things without taking ourselves too seriously’
What type of leader are you? It may depend on whether you’re an older or younger sibling, psychologist says