The Virtues of Quiet Leadership in a (Very) Loud WorldMichael Harris-Love Mar 8, 2022
I was involved in a somewhat awkward exchange while attending a conference soon after my appointment as Program Director. A respected academic leader who was attending the conference was made aware of my recent appointment and paused between sessions to briefly chat, “Oh, you’re the new director of the program?”
“Yes, I just started a couple of months ago.”
“Oh, okay. Well, congratulations…you were so quiet during the Q&A sessions today!”
I’m sure that I released a long, knowing, internal sigh at this point and simply replied something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m probably a better listener than a talker…” as the conversation trailed off just before the start of another conference presentation. This type of scenario is one that introverts know all too well. A curious bookend to this brief exchange is that I did indeed pose a question during the conference Q&A sessions. However, I did not embrace the senior scholar archetype (or perhaps, stereotype): pontificating at every opportunity, asking obvious questions, falsely posing a comment as a question, or engaging in other ostentatious displays of rank or privilege. No self-respecting introvert would go down this route.
Leadership exists within two realms: one is situated squarely within reality and the other exists within the confines of the imagination. Our perception of successful leadership – to be fair – is defined by both realms. We typically imagine great leaders as being outward facing, larger-than-life entities, who consume most of the oxygen in the room, with scores of followers who are compelled by the power of personality. Moreover, our senses further conspire against us in the corporeal world by paying more attention to the extroverted leader instead of the less animated voices pointing the way forward. The default vision of the “ideal leader” seems to be built upon the premise that extroverted personalities provide a multitude of tactical advantages without any significant downsides. It’s an assumption that is far overdue for large scale critical appraisal.
Of course, everyone has not taken on the assumptions of those who worship at the altar of the vociferous. Susan Cain and others have pointed out that the capabilities of introverted people are generally undervalued, and that the embrace of the Extrovert Ideal has a dark underbelly that bears further scrutiny. The Extrovert Ideal enables the conflation of a convincing delivery with solid argument and promotes a process of shared decision making that is unduly influenced by the loudest voices in the room. It’s not that the introvert persona is free from shortcomings or negative consequences. On the contrary, those on the far end of the introvert spectrum often withhold ideas that may contribute to larger discussions, fail to appropriately respond to situations that require an assertive stance, or limit their participation in social or networking activities that are part of academic engagement. Nevertheless, the sins of extroversion are often forgiven since this personality trait is the dominant motif in the workplace and the culture at-large.This begs the question: why would I, or any other introvert, bother with the academic enterprise? The truth of the matter is that the natural gifts of the introvert are well-aligned with many faculty tasks. The process of digging deep into subject matter, analyzing and interpreting data, and the exposition of a theory or recent findings are all things that attract introverts to academia. Nevertheless, there are certainly tasks that range from teaching large classes to giving plenary presentations that seem incompatible with the ethos of the modern contemplative, so again – why bother? Well, introverted educators, clinical investigators, and academic leaders step into the arena because their dedication to their craft is greater than the limitations of their temperament. I also posit that having an innate preference for quiet is very different than not having the ability or skill needed to be front and center. So, the fact that an introverted soul can be an affable conversationalist, an able teacher, or a skilled orator does not constitute a paradox.
As far as leadership is concerned, it is important to note that there is no “one size fits all” regarding style, tone, or philosophy. Leadership approaches, of course, range from the democratic to the authoritative. In my view, the leadership style needed to lead a government agency, or a medical center is far different than what is needed to effectively lead groups involved in creative or academic work. As someone between the ambiversion and introversion spectrum of the temperament scale, I am aware of the need to balance the more outspoken voices among our faculty with those who need more time to process and respond to our discussions. Both types of voices are critical to our model of shared academic governance. Authentic leadership lies in facilitating decision making in a manner that is consistent with personal ethics and program values. Rather than striving to be the loudest voice in the room, introverted academic leaders can authentically serve their programs by allowing faculty to:
- Participate in a work environment built on trust
- Innovate or take risks without fear
- Feel empowered to be proactive in meeting program goals
- Be able to learn and grow as part of their professional role.
The societal cost of undervaluing the contributions of introverted leaders, educators, and students is hard to quantify, but also hard to ignore. Perhaps the introverted university leaders of today will continue to turn the tide and create a path for other quiet leaders to follow.
Cain S. Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishing Group; 2012. ISBN 0-307-35214-5.
Cook G. The power of introverts: a manifesto for quiet brilliance. Scientific American. January 24, 2012.
Giles S. The most important leadership competencies, according to leaders around the world. Harvard Business Review. March 15, 2016.Heskett J. Should we rethink the promise of teams? Working Knowledge – Harvard Business School. Updated on January 2, 2013. https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/should-we-rethink-the-promise-of-teams Accessed on December 30, 2019.