Introverts’ worries about the potential challenges of leadership roles often deter them from throwing their hats in the ring – yet those who do manage to become leaders will perform just as well as extroverts, according to new research.

Outlining their findings in an article for The Conversation, psychologists Andrew Spark and Peter O’Connor write: “We found that what introverts think they will feel in a leadership position plays a powerful role in explaining why introverts struggle to emerge as leaders. When participants thought they would experience negative emotions (ie, fear, worry or distress), these became strong psychological barriers to acting like a leader.”

However, they note, “Just because introverts don’t expect themselves to manage leadership positions, doesn’t mean they cannot be successful leaders … [research has] identified several leadership situations where introverts tend to outperform extroverts.”

For example, one study discovered that introverts are more effective leaders of proactive teams than extroverts. Meanwhile, another found that introverted characteristics are prevalent in ‘servant leaders’: individuals who foster good performance in others by focusing on the growth and well-being of their teams.

The scholars conclude: “If introverts can be taught to be more confident or optimistic with respect to leadership situations, it seems very likely they can emerge as leaders as often as extroverts.”

Introverts are still routinely overlooked for leadership roles – but in the view of The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper, there are potentially widespread misunderstandings of the introvert/extrovert dynamic. Indeed, she says, it may not be anything like as binary as it is so often perceived: “Although Jung considered introversion and extroversion mutually exclusive – in terms of whether people get their energy from individuals and objects outside themselves, or from thoughts and feelings inside – later theorists formed different, more nuanced views on this.

“For example, the mother-and-daughter team who created the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) decided that the ideal manager was an Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging individual – known for short as an ESTJ. That very classification suggests a blend of different qualities: some deriving from external stimuli, and others more internal.”

Cooper explains: “Isabel Briggs Meyers and her mother Katharine Cook Briggs went on to define a total of 16 different managerial types that you could be – half of which relied upon varying degrees of introversion to underpin their way of dealing with things.

“It’s important to remember that so many aspects of leadership are about relating, which arguably hinges on an introverted approach. Also, we often make the mistake of thinking that confidence equals capability. There are two sides to this, and an awareness that the listening part of a relationship is just as important to a leader – or perhaps even more so – than the speaking part is hugely valuable. The more reflective and observant mentality is easily as useful as always wanting to be loudly at the centre of things.”

Cooper suggests that the way leaders picture a strict divide between introverts and extroverts needs to change. “There are people who would argue that Jung’s view of introversion and extroversion being mutually exclusive was wide of the mark,” she says, “and that it’s in fact more of a continuum. You will naturally get people who are more at the extreme ends of that sliding scale – but it also follows that plenty of others will be at various points in the middle.

“I often used to say to people who felt disappointed by coming up as introverts in MBTI tests that any introvert has the capacity to take centre stage. That spot isn’t reserved just for extroverts – and an introvert is perhaps more likely to use discerning judgment to determine when seizing the spotlight is an appropriate course of action.”

She adds: “Learning how to apply that judgment effectively in a range of different scenarios is very much the objective. When should an extrovert adopt a more introverted style, and vice-versa? Working a room and speaking to lots of people could be very draining for an introvert and very energising for an extrovert. Similarly, an extrovert who’s having to listen to, rather than dominate, a conversation could find that experience incredibly tiring.

“But understanding the relationships with the people you lead is what matters. That’s why there’s a real wisdom in knowing about these two, different approaches – and I think you’ll find that many successful leaders are introverts who, when necessary, are able to behave like extroverts.”

For thoughts on understanding yourself and adapting your leadership style, check out these learning resources from the Institute