In a position such as department chair or dean where interpersonal skills are so important, you might think that all academic leaders would be extroverts. In fact, once while I was out on an interview, a university president (whose wife made a living administering personality profiles) told me that he’d never hire a dean who didn’t have a Myers-Briggs profile of ENTJ. (My own profile is INTJ, and needless to say, I wasn’t offered the job.) That incident taught me a lot about how even experienced academic leaders sometimes misunderstand what academic leadership is all about—not to mention that they sometimes misunderstand what purpose the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) is intended to serve.
The fact is that there’s no one perfect profile of the effective provost, dean, or department chair. Like the rest of humanity, academic leaders are found in all shapes and sizes, and they have personalities that are as varied as can be imagined. Moreover, when we talk about academic leaders as introverted or extroverted, we’re really using these terms in two different ways that we need to be careful not to confuse. To begin with, the MBTI approach to introversion and extroversion is a little bit different from how we encounter these expressions in day-to-day speech. As the Myers-Briggs Foundation itself says, “Everyone spends some time extraverting and some time introverting. Don’t confuse Introversion with shyness or reclusiveness. They are not related.” (www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/extraversion-or-introversion.asp) But what can it possibly mean to be “introverting” if we don’t have in mind something like being bashful, acting as a loner, or lacking comfort when others are around? The difference can be seen most clearly in how people work out problems in order to make decisions. MBTI extroverts process information out loud. They like to talk things through, bounce ideas off others, and offer ideas that are still in the formative stage in order to improve them as the discussion continues. MBTI introverts prefer to think things through by themselves and share their thoughts only when they’ve already given the matter careful consideration.
These two styles of processing information can be terribly frustrating for people who make decisions differently. MBTI extroverts can seem painfully talkative and disorganized to someone who prefers to encounter ideas only when they’re relatively well refined. MBTI introverts can seem as though they’re hoarding information, not sharing their thought processes, or slow in making decisions to someone who prefers to work through the details of a problem through conversation. But the fact is that neither style of decision making is better than the other. They’re just different, and a style that’s highly effective in one environment may not work as well where the stakeholders have different expectations or approaches to decision making themselves.
In any case, the psychological use of the terms introverted and extroverted is different from their common connotations of introversion as reserve and extroversion as gregariousness. Yet even leaders who are introverted in this more familiar sense can have certain advantages over their more outgoing counterparts. In a TIMEmagazine cover story titled “The Upside of Being an Introvert (and Why Extroverts Are Overrated),” Bryan Walsh summarizes the work of researchers including Adam Grant (associate professor of management at the Wharton School of Business), Jennifer Kahnweiler (author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength), K. Anders Ericsson (Conradi Eminent Scholar and professor of psychology at Florida State University), and Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking), who found that shyness in a leader can be quite advantageous. Reserved leaders were less likely than extroverts to be reckless in their choices, more likely to convey an attitude of calm confidence, and better able to make use of technology for social networking, since they didn’t feel as great a need to be in the presence of other people in order to communicate effectively with them.
Moreover, what all these studies indicate is that how we use our individual characteristics to address leadership challenges is far more important than what those characteristics are. Effective leadership results from capitalizing on our strengths, not by trying to be someone we’re not. Administrators who are extroverts in the MBTI sense can emphasize the importance of teamwork and developing buy-in by talking through issues in public roundtables and taking full advantage of the committees and task forces that already exist. Those who are introverts in the MBTI sense may achieve better results by thinking through issues on their own and then inviting further discussion through distribution of a white paper or in the comments posted on an electronic discussion board. Leaders who are introverted in the sense of being quiet, shy, or private people can be highly effective in a wide variety of situations, ranging from individual conversations with key stakeholders, electronic communication in the form of a periodic email blast, or (depending upon personal preference) speeches to large groups where there is a sense of distance between the lectern and the audience. And administrators who are extroverted in the sense of being gregarious and sociable may be most effective at gatherings where they have an opportunity to mingle with a large number of people and to exchange ideas face-to-face.
The key task we have as academic leaders is to recognize that not everyone’s leadership will look precisely like our own. We should thus resist the urge to assume that colleagues or people who report to us are leading “incorrectly” simply because they approach their areas in a different way from us. Effective academic leadership is a big enough tent to hold many different styles of interacting with others. So we should encourage others—and ourselves—to discover approaches that best fit individual traits and personalities instead of assuming that any one set of traits or any one type of personality is essential for success as a leader.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers.
Kahnweiler, J.B. (2009). The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Walsh, B. (February 6, 2012). The Upside of Being an Introvert (and Why Extroverts Are Overrated). TIME. 179.5, 40-45.
Grant, A.M., F. Gino, and D.A. Hofmann. (June 2011). “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity.” Academy of Management Journal. 54.3, 528-550.
Richards-Wilson, S. (2004). “Introverts as Silent Leaders: Indefensible or Indomitable?” Organisational and Social Dynamics. 4.2, 234-246.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS, a firm providing academic leadership training and assessment worldwide. His latest book, Best Practices in Faculty Evaluation: A Practical Guide for Academic Leaders, is available from Jossey-Bass.