Is it good to be extroverted leader?

The classic image of a CEO is one of a natural-born leader — someone who speaks with authority, gladhands with zeal, and takes to a keynote stage like an actor on Broadway. After all, it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence when a CEO shuffles meekly through the building avoiding eye contact. But according to a new study, an extremely extroverted leader can turn people off just as much as an overly introverted one.

First, let’s back up a little bit. What are introverts and extroverts? The internet is champing at the bit to tell you that introverts love cats and extroverts get bored easily. But what’s really going on here?

Psychologist Carl Jung first came up with the concepts of introversion and extroversion in the 20th century. As Jung conceived of them, the core difference between introverts and extroverts is in how they recharge their brains: Extroverts socialize, and introverts prefer to spend time alone.

Today, Jung’s concepts are still in widespread use: Level of extroversion (or lack thereof) is one of the Big Five personality traits, which modern psychologists use to quantify human personalities. It’s also an element of the popular, now-debunked Myers-Briggs test.

Not that everyone is either an introvert or extrovert. Though they’re often presented as the two types of people in the world, they’re really two extremes of a bell curve, Jung argued — with “ambiverts,” who are about half and half, in the middle.

“There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert,” Jung famously said. “Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.”

Still, the fringes of the spectrum differ in all sorts of ways. Though the core difference is in how they mentally recharge, introverts also salivate more when they taste lemon juice, and extroverts pay more attention to human faces. Extroverts also seem like better leaders — they’re people people, after all.

But that’s not exactly what a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found.

For the paper, researchers sorted students in a business class — and, in a related experiment, employees at a Chinese communications company — into informal teams. After completing assorted projects, the researchers asked the students and employees who on their team they perceived as a leader.

Next, they looked at how that meshed with participants’ self-reported personalities. Were extroverts always perceived as better leaders?

Warmth and assertiveness — two dimensions of extroversion in the Big Five personality framework — correlated with perceived leadership, but only up to a point. Too much of either element hurt people’s leadership scores.

Overly assertive people came off as domineering, and overly warm people also turned off their collaborators, who felt pressured to muster similar levels of enthusiasm and chattiness. Jung said there’s no such thing as a pure extrovert — but even approaching pure extroversion makes other people uncomfortable.

However! If you’re an extreme extrovert, don’t give up hope. It’s hard work to shift your Big Five profile, but this study found that extreme extroverts could be perceived as stronger leaders when they had “prosocial motivations” — in other words, if it was clear they wanted to help others, rather than just pursue their own narrow self-interest. Their collaborators appreciated their extroversion more when it served the common good; it became pushiness for a cause.

But overall, it seems that compelling leadership isn’t about extreme personalities. It’s more about a balanced persona, capable of a variety of things: networking with colleagues, reflecting on your own, and smiling — not grimacing — at passersby in the hall.

It’s all about balance.

Check out my related post: What is a strategic leader?

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