Quiet leadership

Quiet leadership

When thinking of classic ‘great leaders’, many people would define them as confident extraverts who bring a lot of energy into a room, articulate their ideas, and can rapidly change tack because they generate new ideas while they’re talking. However, many successful leaders are/were introverts, such as Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi and Bill Gates.

Rather than just value this one-size-fits-all style of leadership, it’s important to appreciate diversity in style, so let’s explore the qualities of a quieter, more considered approach.

Note that the traits discussed in this article are not exclusive to introverts. Extraverts can harness these qualities too, so it’s useful for all of us to be aware of them.


The terms introversion and extraversion were introduced into psychology by Carl Jung. It’s a continuous scale, with ambiversion falling in the middle. Here are the behaviours you’ll notice at the extremes:

Extraverts focus on the outer world. They are outgoing, talkative and energetic. They enjoy human interactions and are enthusiastic, assertive and gregarious. They tend to be energised when around other people, and may lose energy when they are by themselves for a period of time. They enjoy working in groups.

Extraverts talk to think.

Introverts focus on the inner world. They are more reserved (nothing to do with shyness). Their energy expands through reflection and dwindles during interaction. They enjoy spending time alone and can be overwhelmed by too much stimulation from large gatherings. They prefer to concentrate on a single activity at a time and like to observe situations before they participate. They are more analytical before speaking. They remain calm when others lose their cool.

Introverts think to talk.

I’m certified to use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® which shows your personality type on four measures, including the extravert:introvert scale. Please let me know if you’d like to find out where you and your team score.

Because extraverts are often perceived to be highly valued, if you are more introverted you may feel you have to display extraverted behaviours at work. You might even get an extravert score as a Myers-Briggs personality type when you’re actually an introvert.

The role of thinking at work

In his book Quiet Leadership, neuroscientist, David Rock, shares his research into the role of thinking at work. He says:

A quiet leader sees his or her role as: “Unleashing people’s potential more than imposing his or her own view.”

He suggests six steps to help your team think more productively and effectively than they would without you as their leader. The principles are all about thinking and the quality of conversations you have. I’ve added my own commentary under his headlines.

1. Think about thinking

Let your team do the thinking. The leader should be focused on the person while the person focuses on the topic (in that respect, it’s a bit like coaching!)

Focus on the solution and not just the problem. Stretch people’s way of thinking about the problem. Often they will think in terms of options: “Shall I do A or B?” To expand their thinking, replace the ‘or’ with ‘and’ by asking: “What else is possible?”

2. Listen for potential

David Rock advises leaders to: “Listen to people as successful, competent, and able to resolve their own dilemmas”. Again, this is similar to coaching!

Assume the person has the idea within themselves. You role is to ask great questions and listen fully and completely to enable them to extract their best thinking. As the leader, it’s really important you don’t apply your own filters and bias (be agenda-less and ego-less).

3. Speak with intent

In my experience, introverts do this really well. They usually speak when they’ve got something worth saying, are often concise and get to the point quickly. They use just one or two sentences to get to the heart of the issue. How can you model that?

4. Dance towards insight

The author talks about ‘placement’ – anchoring the conversation before it begins so people know where you’re coming from and what’s going to happen. As well as questioning, this includes clarification. This allows all the brain’s neurons to light up and make connections, e.g. with other parts of the organisational system.

5. Create new thinking

Help them articulate the ‘as is’ – the current situation or dilemma – then, through your questions, help them generate ideas. Don’t be tempted to fixate on any particular one, instead, let them brainstorm, and ask the right questions to help them understand which idea is more likely to generate the solution.

Go with the energy of that person. If they are really motivated by something, they are more likely to do it.

6. Follow-up

Check whether they did the thing they said they would do, and ask what they learned from it.

Level 5 leadership

Researching this article reminded me of the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. He discovered that companies which went from good to great (and stayed there) had several things in common. One of those was that they had level 5 leaders at the top.

A level 5 leader is somebody with humility + will + ferocious resolve to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.

“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”
Jim Collins

Level 5 leaders are reluctant to have the limelight, but will accept it when it’s in the service of the company. This builds trust, because it’s obvious the leader isn’t there just to feed their own ego. Because they don’t want the limelight for themselves, they allow others to unleash their potential.

Here are the two sides of Level 5 leadership according to Jim Collins:

Creates superb results, a clear catalyst in the transition from good to great Demonstrates a compelling modesty, shunning public adulation, never boastful
Demonstrates an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult Acts with quiet, calm determination; relies principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate
Sets the standard of building an enduring great company; will settle for nothing less Channels ambition into the company, not the self; sets up successors for even greater success in the next generation
Looks in the mirror, not out of the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck Looks out of the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company – other people, external factors, and good luck

“You can accomplish anything in life provided that you don not mind who gets the credit.”
Harry Truman

Practical steps

  • Where would you place yourself on the introversion:extraversion scale?
  • When you look at the leaders around you, what balance of extraversion and introversion do you see?
  • Are you allowing space for all your people to thrive – introverts as well as extraverts?
  • How can you help your introverts to harness their strengths?
  • How can your extraverts learn from the gifts of introversion?
Introverts and Extraverts

You may find it useful to plot yourself, the leadership team and your people on a grid like this.

Introverted leaders who stand back and listen can be very empowering to those around them, because they help create the space for others to think and create.

A potential downside of introverts may be that they tend to be quite private and don’t share much about themselves. It can feel harder to build close relationships and co-create with them – even though they might be a deep strategic thinker with brilliant insights.

Introverts can often feel invisible in meetings because their thoughtful approach means they may have difficulty in responding to on-the-spot changes in direction. What they need is time to think. Make sure they are invited in.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet, explains that introverts often feel most alive in quieter environments. Solitude is often seen as a crucial ingredient for creativity. For example, authors often have a cabin at the end of the garden or go for a long walk by themselves.

However, many workplaces are open plan, a layout that is seemingly designed for extraverts. As people are coming back to work after the pandemic, I’m seeing companies are expanding/creating more and more social zones and spaces where people can get together (because that’s what extraverts have missed while working from home).

If you’re a leader of introverts, what can you do to create the best environment for them? Could you create quiet pods for people to work, think, reflect, and rest?

When I’m facilitating teams, I’ll often start an activity by giving individuals time to think, then I’ll ask each person to share their ideas before inviting them to co-create. If you start by sharing ideas, it’s often the extraverts who go first. They may have the best ideas, but equally, they may not!

Remember, introverts often think more deeply about a topic. If you are an extraverted leader of introverts, you may want to get to the solution or action quickly. Hold back. Often you’ll get deeper layers of insight that are more far-reaching and strategic than if you go with the first ideas that come to mind.

If you’d like help with any of this, please let me know.

Related reading

You might also enjoy this TED talk by Susan Cain, The Power of Introverts.

Next month

The science of attachment and its effect on relationships.