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Over the summer, I found myself sneaking away from my open plan workspace at my internship, to a quiet green room, with cubicles and large windows. I found that I did better work there than at my desk, surrounded by imagined gazes. Last week too, I left a school party, giddy with excitement, not from the music, but from the thought of going home to my bed and a good book. In class, I sometimes rehearse my comments before I voice them, moving words around in my head till they sound right and accurately convey the message I want to pass across. Many times, by the time this happens, the conversation has moved in a different direction, and I quickly abandon my comment, refusing to speak merely for the sake of it, or waste words, as I often think of it.
I am an introvert. Not shy, just an introvert. Susan Cain will tell you there’s a difference. And I agree. My deliberation over classroom comments isn’t because I’m scared of saying the wrong thing. I’m in school to learn, after all. Neither is my joy at burying my nose in a book from fear of talking to my peers. I simply believe that words spoken should add value and besides, between imagined worlds in books and the ones in my head, I keep myself pretty good company.
Many of our greatest inventors and leaders are, or were, introverts: Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Barack Obama. Yet, in the year and a half I have spent at business school, the standard for leadership that has often been portrayed is one of extroversion. Students are advised to be assertive, to “walk the factory floors,” to have the kind of ostentatious personality that makes itself known as soon as it enters a room. And these are undoubtedly necessary leadership skills to cultivate, especially for certain circumstances. My problem is not that this narrative is incorrect, but rather that it is incomplete.
Little emphasis is placed on showing how introversion in leadership is beneficial. The CEO Genome Study, a 10-year study of distinguishing attributes of high-performing CEOs, for instance, found that introverts, more often than extroverts, outperform board and investor expectations, although the latter are often boards’ favored choices. Why then don’t business schools teach that introversion can make for great leadership and encourage all students — introverted or not — to cultivate these winning skills? The same CEO study also found that high confidence levels were not correlated with high performance, so why do business schools, and society in general really, idolize this performance of self?
Introverted leaders are observant, listen effectively, and create an environment where good ideas, regardless of source, are welcome. Research by Adam Grant and colleagues found that, especially in times of change and with proactive workers, introverted leaders are often more effective and yield higher profits than their extroverted counterparts. Solitude nurtures deep thought, which in the best case, blossoms into genius and in the worst, into profound self-awareness, characteristics that would make for a remarkable leader. Yet, business school classes very rarely stress solitude, or explicitly connect its fruits to introversion.
As a result, introverted students are often left questioning their place in halls lined with pictures of leaders that have changed the world. Words like “introversion” or “quiet” never show up next to these pictures. As they watch their peers jump effortlessly from networking event to house party, many are left feeling that they need to change who they are, or risk wasting their business school experience. With known examples of introverts in leadership positions, and clear benefits of introverted leadership, business schools do all their students — introverts, ambiverts, and extroverts — a disservice by painting an incomplete picture of leadership. In an age where diversity is a main focus, schools must examine ways of fostering said diversity that go beyond the usual categories.
In diversifying leadership portrayals, I propose three lines of action.
- First, business schools much teach that introverted leaders exist. They should diversify the leadership characteristics highlighted in cases; choose cases that show introversion in leadership as having merit, with lessons that extroverts can — and should — learn from. Whether through explicit or subliminal messaging, schools should give students permission to be themselves, wherever they fall on the psychological spectrum. Where edits to self are encouraged, the burden should be as heavy on the extrovert as on the introvert.
- Second, schools should show that what they teach is real — that there are living examples of introverted leaders. Bring them to fireside chats, as classroom speakers, send students to their companies.
- Third, craft a learning and living environment that caters to both introverts and extroverts. Encourage both individual and group thought. Create spaces in which students that need it can find solitude in the midst of the bustle. Open-plan standing desks and quiet green rooms, with cubicles and large windows, both belong in our business schools.
The prevailing stereotype of the typical business school student is a charismatic, larger-than-life, sometimes brash party animal. But real life is often more complex. People across the psychological spectrum exist at business school, and in executive suites around the world. Business schools need to give this reality more thought.
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