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The Power of Quiet Leadership

Many of the best, most effective leaders are introverts by nature, schoolyard nerds who grew up to be outstanding at drawing out the best in the people who work for them.

by Mark Lanfear
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Being involved in workforce solutions, I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics of leadership in the workplace. Over the years, I’ve noticed that casual observers often believe extroverted personalities make the best leaders and managers. Being outgoing myself, I’d like to think that’s true. But look more closely and you’ll find that many of the best, most effective leaders are introverts by nature, schoolyard nerds who grew up to be outstanding at drawing out the best in the people who work for them.

Think about Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or Steven Spielberg, self-described introverts whose success is legendary. Or Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt, neither exactly known as the extrovert of the party but two of the most recognizable symbols of leadership. Quiet, strong leaders often have amazing influence on the world around us. (Even the coolest fictional character out there, Marvel’s Tony Stark, is an introvert at heart, happiest when creating the next Iron Man suit alone in his lab.)

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So what is an introvert, anyway? Not necessarily a shy person, as psychologist Carl Jung first described, but defined now as a more reserved type who prefers solitary activities to social encounters. An introvert gains energy through reflection and quiet time as opposed to drawing energy from crowds and applause as an extrovert does.

That’s hardly a bad thing, especially for professional and technical talent in fields like life sciences. If you’re in this business, you want all the deep thinking you can get, right? (And if you’re reading this column, you probably fit this description.)

Understanding personality types is important in modern talent supply chain management. For example, if you’re an extroverted manager looking for talent, try to channel your inner geek and look at the potential of the introverted people within your organization or candidates that you’re recruiting. By understanding their inner strengths and what motivates them, you’ll have a greater opportunity to connect. But be aware that you might have to dig deeper to find the hidden gems who don’t have an extrovert’s natural ability to self-promote.

From a 180-degree standpoint, introverts who manage introverted talent need to realize that communicating with and motivating employees who fit this personality type might not be their strong suits. But doing so effectively may simply be a matter of looking within. In other words, what works for the managers probably will work for the talent who report to them too.

Given that introverts tend to look more for a result than a response in what they do, managers of introverts should try to provide talent like this with goals to achieve and yardsticks for measurement. Defining assignments and then providing the space to work out the answers rather than constantly supervising or interrupting their problem-solution navigation time is a smart approach.

In my experience, STEM-oriented people do their best work when they feel it’s providing value in some way. Reinforcing that sense within tasks and goals is a strong way to harness the passion and energy of a managed workforce without a lot of rah-rah needed.

On another note, from the talent perspective, if you’re a loner at the workplace hoping to advance your career, don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone to get noticed. Seek out others in the organization who can provide some balance on the extroverted side if possible, and use their energy as an example of how to shine a light on yourself. A little of that goes a long way in raising your profile and enhancing your prospects for promotion.

Brian Grazer, the highly acclaimed producer of some of the best movies and TV shows of the past couple of decades (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, 24), recently posted a blog about his management style. Instead of telling people who work for him what to do, he asks questions.

“Asking questions creates a space for people to raise issues they are worried about, or to give the boss information he or she might not know and might not be expecting,” he writes. “Most important, asking questions gives people the chance to make the case for the way they want a decision to go. And vice versa.” This seems like a great way to manage people in any business, period—but particularly in life sciences, where finding solutions using personal initiative is so important and introverts abound. (

So embrace the introverts’ qualities that get things done without the need for a standing ovation. Hug your inner geek and celebrate your Tony Stark-ness. People like you can move mountains. Introvert or extrovert, I’d love to hear about ways you’ve successfully navigated and managed your workforce, so get in touch at @marklanfear1.