~The Art of Quiet leadership

This post first appeared on the OpenLearn Website : https://www.open.edu/openlearn/money-business/leadership-management/quiet-leadership-post-covid-world

The last ten years have seen the rise of populist leaders, characterised by their extroverted ‘style before substance’ self-promotion approach.

Individuals such as Donald Trump; Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro, promote the ideal of the pushy extroverted leader, who speaks without thinking, reacts rapidly and excitedly and changes tack frequently.

For some time now there has been a general perception that you are better off in the workplace, and as a leader, if you have extrovert tendencies: In other words, if you are ‘boastful and booming’ rather than ‘contemplative and calm’. But research on quiet more introverted styles of leadership has shown that introverts may be far better suited to today’s challenges.

Introversion Vs extroversion

The perception that extroverted individuals make better leaders, is influenced by the fact that there are more extroverts in leadership positions, combined with the fact that extroverts are much more likely to tell you how good they are. The traits of extroversion and introversion, first introduced by the famous psychologist Carl Jung, are generally characterised by garrulous outgoing and energetic behaviours in extroverts, whereas introverted characters are more likely to be calm, reflective and often prefer the written to the spoken medium.

In actual fact, according to most personality tests that set out to measure these tendencies, behaviours are more often placed on a continuum rather than being confined to one extreme or the other: Ambiversion-the ability to shift between introverted and extroverted behaviours, is very common, for example, salespeople that on one hand, need to listen deeply, on the other, talk enthusiastically about their products (Kahnweiler, 2009,p, 3). …studies found that extrovert’s positive outlook can make them more resilient to stress…

Some studies, such as one that looked at extroversion in the workplace from a multiple countries perspective, found that extroverts are more likely to rise to leadership positions due to a greater motivation to achieve external goals, such as a promotion or increased salary. These studies found that extrovert’s positive outlook can make them more resilient to stress and more likely to bounce back from failure, both recognized qualities of strong leaders (Ledesma, 2014).  

But according to Susan Cain, author of the bestselling book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking’, society as a whole undervalues introverts, particularly as leaders. She argues that without introverts we wouldn’t have leadership achievements such as The Apple computer, or theory of relativity – Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein were both introverts.Graphic of introverts VS ExtrovertsCopyrighted  image IconFigure 1 Adapted from information in (Kahnweiler, 2009)

The power of the introverted quiet leader

So what do introverts bring to leadership positions and how can they overcome their key challenges?

Research shows that introverts can bring a great deal to the table in leadership positions: they are more likely to listen and process the ideas of their team; they consider ideas deeply before acting; they are humble and more likely to credit their team for ideas and performance; they express themselves and their ideas well in writing and because their motivation generally comes from within, are less likely to compromise performance in seeking rewards such as money or power.

For this reason, their judgement is less likely to be compromised through excitement or promise of rich rewards.  However, there is a downside: Many western societies, including the US, have long favoured extroverted behaviours: Psychologist, Robert McCrae created a map of the world, showing the extent to which, different countries favour introverted or extroverted qualities (McCrae & Terracciano, 2005). Asian /oriental societies erred on the side of favouring introverted qualities whilst Western cultures revealed the opposite.

However, the Western predilection to favour extroversion has resulted in many leadership courses, such as MBAs being structured to favour extroverted activities such as; talking about achievements or large group presentations. These can leave introverted students feeling they lack the qualities necessary for ‘good leadership’.

So what are introverts key challenges and how do should they overcome them?

Jennifer Kahnweiler’s studies into leadership challenges for introverts revealed six key factors which can hold introverts back from rising to leadership postiions:

  1. People exhaustion (draining of energy due to too many people contact)
  2. Fast pace (leaving little time for reflection)
  3. Interruptions (particularly difficult given our ‘always on’ world)
  4. A pressure to self-promote
  5. An emphasis on teamwork
  6. An aversion towards negative impressions (introverts’ facial expression doesn’t often reveal their emotion as readily as extroverts)

She advocates a 4 Ps Process to overcome these challenges:


Try to prepare in advance for people heavy situations such as meetings, create your questions when you have time to think about them


Show people, you are present by showing you are interested and aware through making eye contact or asking a question


Push yourself out of your comfort zone as often as possible: more pain more gain!  


Practice new behaviours such as telling stories, public speaking

Yet today’s world seems to demand extroverted qualities more than ever: leaders are expected to respond rapidly to increasingly complex scenarios; news travels faster than ever in an ‘always-on world,’ so why do we need more introverts in leadership positions?

Introverted leaders for the future

Introverted leaders have a great deal to offer in our complex and increasingly chaotic world: The creativity and staying power of introverts are vital to solving long term problems such as climate change or the increased possibility of worldwide viruses such as Covid19, which emerge due to complex social and ecological factors.

In addition, introverts recognize fellow introverts- introverts makeup 40-60% of the workforce if they are undervalued or not recognised, as is often the case if their leader is an extrovert, they are more likely to leave.

Finally, leaders cannot resolve complex problems without listening to their experts, failure to do so has been a leitmotif of populist leaders whose performance at controlling covid19 has been little short of catastrophic. Given these factors, it could well be the day of the populist extrovert is over and the time for the reflective quiet leader, is indeed upon us.  

Why this government may never regain the trust of the people

This blog first appeared on the London School of Economics, Policy and Politics blog.

Recent media reports have stated that the government is looking to regain trust from the electorate by changing its approach, following the departure of Dominic Cummings and other leading advisors. Jacqueline Baxter argues that trust in government is influenced by a number of factors and that Whitehall’s desire to ‘reset’ may be far more difficult to achieve than they anticipate.

Since the start of the pandemic, the UK Government’s decision-making has tampered with the trust of the British people on numerous occasions, including by U-turning on decisions at the last minute; giving contracts to personal contacts without recourse to due process; and those contracts subsequently failing to deliver. The U-turns may not have been so inimical were they not done after categorical statements indicating the exact opposite of previous proclamations – for example, Boris Johnson, announcing on 5 January that schools would stay open and then, 24 hours later, announcing a month-long national lockdown.

Perhaps one of the most divisive and politically puzzling moves in recent political history, was the failure to sack Dominic Cummings, following his blatant and flagrant flouting of rules in the first lockdown. Following this, the government, purportedly realising that they had lost the trust of the electorate (based on media reports, polls, and advice from ‘senior Tories’) announced their intention to ‘reset’- to win back the trust of the electorate, assuming that they could wipe the national memory and initiate a ‘tabula rasa’ style reinvention in which the public would regain trust.

Good governance and accountability not only require trust, they also promote it, particularly in establishing generalised trust – an abstract trust attitude that is directed towards people in general, including strangers. Trustworthiness of the state is the most important condition for such generalised trust as it gen­erates interpersonal trust and determines the amount of social and economic capital in a society. This, in turn, affects the state’s capacity to govern. In essence, trust is absolutely crucial to a government’s ability to govern effectively. Research into how systems function effectively and the converse highlights several factors that are key to undermining trust:

The first is corruption – real or perceived. Influential organisations such as Transparency International measure corruption by a perception index; the higher the perception of corruption within a society, the lower the trust. Put simply, citizens must have confidence that the state operates in a transparent and fair manner. The second element is the competence effect – if governments continually U-turn, or, as in the case of the British Government, issue proclamations of excellence that are then overturned by evidence indicating abject failure as in the case of the Test and Trace system, public trust is undermined. The third element is lack of accountability: in order for governance to function well, there must be effective checks and balances indicating that individuals and organisations, particularly those funded by the taxpayer, can be held accountable for their actions. As illustrated by the following examples, the government have failed spectacularly on all three counts.

Differentiating between corruption and nepotism is challenging, but both elements, particularly when they infuse societies at government level, undermine social capital and trust in government. When public positions are filled without due process, and contracts offered without having to tender, societal perceptions of corruption rise. When these public contracts are linked to private investments, perceptions of corruption and cronyism undermine trust that government is functioning effectively and with integrity. Added to this, some of these contracts in the context of the pandemic have resulted in spectacular failures, such as the Test and Trace system.

When an individual trusts another or an organisation, they take a risk that this trust will be betrayed. For example, if I pay my taxes because it is the law, I trust that everyone will do likewise: concomitantly, my trust soon diminishes if I find out that, in reality, I am one the only on in my circle that pays out. This, in turn, will lead to my lack of trust in the system of taxation, and to feelings that the system can easily be circumvented, after all – why should I pay if no one else does? This, in essence, is what happened when Cummings failed to abide by the rules set by the government. This breach of trust was all the more potent because it undermined it at both an interpersonal and system level: Cummings’s transgression became a metonym for the government’s ‘them and us’ attitude to rules. It was also a breach of procedural justice. The procedural lack of fairness of many government decisions since February 2020 has led to a lack of citizenship behaviours amongst the electorate – as Mark Warren points out, when people lose trust in government, they simply opt out. This has been noted in terms of the second lockdown, during which infections skyrocketed.

So, although the government would love to reset the collective memory of the electorate in order to win back their trust, research indicates that, once lost, trust is very difficult to regain; when trust has been breached in myriad ways, this renders it all the more so.


About the Author

Jacqueline Baxter (@drjacquebaxter) is Associate Professor in Public Policy and Management at Open University and Director for the Centre of Innovation in Online Business and Legal Education. Her latest book is: Trust, Accountability and Capacity in Education System Reform (Routledge, 2020).

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