Introverts are underrated as leaders. They shouldn't be.

Experts say introverts have skills that are easily overlooked

A growing number of experts say introverts have a mix of traits that are uniquely suited to leading complex organizations, Elizabeth Bernstein for the Wall Street Journal.

Introverts, Bernstein writes, often have unique skills that are ignored, such as focus, critical thinking, and an ability to quietly empower others.

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She highlights four key reasons why introverts can excel in leadership roles.

Focused thinking

Introverts are not always shy, Bernstein writes. Rather, they "get their energy and process information internally," and therefore usually prefer to spend time alone or in small groups. But preferring to think through problems alone can be an asset for business leaders, Bernstein says.

Laurie Helgoe, an assistant professor in the department of psychology and human services at Davis & Elkins College, says introverts have their "butt on the seat," when they need to think through strategic problems. "An introvert on his or her own is going to enjoy digging in and doing research—and be able to sustain him- or herself in that lonely place of forging your own way."

Internal direction

Introverts also tend to look more to "their own inner compass" to assess whether they're making the correct move or doing well, Bernstein writes.

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"It's very important for [extroverts] to get outside feedback and motivation," says Beth Buelow, a speaker and coach who founded the website The Introvert Entrepreneur. But the need for external validation can also get in the way of execution. Introverts, she says, are open to external validation, but tend to be better about keeping a "long-haul perspective"—and not letting external views distract them or define their decisions.

And that can be key, especially because building a profitable business can take years. "If you cannot stick it out through the time when you are not ... getting anywhere, you aren't going to make it," Helgoe says.

Good listeners

Extroverts can love talking so much that they let it get in the way of building successful relationships with customers, partners, and colleagues, Buelow observes. By contrast, introverts are often good listeners and synthesizers of information because they are focused on processing information internally. "They can sit with those dots long enough to see where the connection is," she explains.

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And a 2010 study in Harvard Business Review found introverted leaders elicited higher performance from proactive employees. Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who led the study, explains, "If you have a very creative, self-motivated staff, introverts are better at channeling that talent and staying out of the way—listening, taking in ideas, helping employees shine."

Realistic goals

Extroverts are also at risk of overstating the positive and setting unrealistic goals because they crave external feedback, Bernstein writes.

For instance, several studies have shown introverts are better at staying on task when given positive information and at incorporating negative information. In one experiment, introverts more rapidly identified the color of positive words, because extroverts' brains responded more to the words' positive content.

And a 2009 study at Boston College and Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that while extroverts approached an "effortful task" by seeking a happy state, introverts tried to stay emotionally neutral.

Buelow says this approach minimizes distraction and is more objective. "They won't have that overstimulation," she says (Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, 8/24).

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