Down To Business: In Defense Of The IT Introverts

Despite the conventional wisdom, extravert qualities aren't always the stuff of leadership, and introvert qualities aren't just shortcomings that must be overcome.

Rob Preston, VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

October 7, 2010

3 Min Read

A forthcoming research study conveys a mixed message about the leadership capabilities of introverts, long the standard bearers of the IT profession--at least according to the industry's oldest stereotype. An Oct. 4 Harvard Business Review article on the study effectively damns introverts with faint praise, as if they're an odd but plucky bunch of overachievers.

The study, due to be published next year, was conducted by the Harvard Business School's Francesca Gino, the Wharton School's Adam M. Grant, and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School's David A. Hofmann. Introverts can make for productive leaders, the study acknowledges, but they're more likely to succeed when they're surrounded by extraverts and more likely to fail when they're surrounded by other introverts. Conversely, the study finds that extraverted leaders are more likely to succeed with introverted employees and less likely with extraverted employees.

It sounds like an interesting study, and you can read about it here. But allow me to take issue with the way introversion is conveyed in the HBR article, as well as poke at the broader IT stereotype.

What I find a little simplistic about the study--or at least the HBR's characterization of it--is the implicit assumption that extravert qualities are the stuff of leadership while introvert qualities are shortcomings that need to be overcome. Extraverts are portrayed as go-getters--they're bold, collaborative, energetic, and adventurous. Introverts are portrayed as passive--they're quiet, shy, reserved, and unadventurous. Despite stating that both types of leaders "can be equally successful or ineffectual," the HBR article seems to overlook the fact that extraverted leaders could be blowhards, rash decision makers, and shallow glad-handers, while introverts could be natural leaders--calculating strategists.

We should look at extraverts and introverts the way the Myers Briggs personality evaluators do. The Myers Briggs definitions have less to do with active vs. passive and more to do with how individuals draw their energy and inspiration--extraverts seek out and process information from other people; introverts tend to sort things out on their own. By those definitions, for every successful extraverted leader (Steve Ballmer, John Chambers, Marc Benioff) there's a successful introverted one (Michael Dell, Eric Schmidt, Jim Goodnight). Who's to say which style is "better"? I'm sure extraverted leaders must work at their listening and deliberation skills, just as introverted leaders must work at public speaking and team building.

InformationWeek has the privilege of engaging regularly with an editorial advisory board of world-class CIOs. At a recent board dinner, I was struck by the eclectic mix of personality types. The extraverts weren't the only alpha leaders in the room. In fact, the advisory board member with the most acute E.F. Hutton quality (when he talks, people listen) was Hewlett-Packard CIO Randy Mott, whose quiet, unassuming command and charisma are apparent to all, and whose record of leadership and accomplishment at HP--and before that, at Dell and Wal-Mart--is exemplary.

Corporate leadership is about driving innovation and profitable execution, as well as creating an environment so that your people want to break down doors for you and your department or company. Since there's next to zero chance that all-extravert teams will be led by introverts and vice versa, it's time we valued an assortment of personality types and worked on drawing out the most productive attributes.

About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

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