Why You Don't Have To Be An Extrovert To Be A Good Leader

Communication skills, not extroversion, is the key to being an effective leader.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 16, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that communication, not extroversion, is an important driver of leadership perceptions.

For years, studies have shown that introverts are at a disadvantage compared to extroverts in terms of being viewed as leaders. This research contradicts that popular notion.

To better understand this new finding, I recently spoke to James Lemoine, Associate Professor of Organization and Human Resources at the University at Buffalo School of Management. Here is the summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of communication skills and leadership, how did you study it, and what did you find?

My colleague, Tyree Mitchell of Louisiana State University, collected the data used in the two studies that were part of this research, and we saw it as an opportunity to dive into what seemed like an inconsistency in scholarship on personality and leadership.

For decades, leadership scholars (including myself) had published papers stating that more extroverted people tended to emerge more as leaders and get promoted into leadership roles more often, in large part because their extroversion made them more effective communicators.

As a result, there are hundreds of business articles, blogs, and videos claiming that extroversion is an important key to being viewed as a leader.

But a different stream of research, in the personality literature, maintained that extroverts weren't necessarily any better at communication than introverts or ambiverts. So, the point of our study was to try to account for both perspectives and to determine what really drives people to see others as 'leader-like.'

Consistent with the personality literature, we found that extroverts aren't necessarily any better at communication than introverts; there was no statistically significant association across our two studies.

And it was communication skill, not extroversion, that primarily drove perceptions of leadership potential.

Who would you call a good leader? Can you describe the qualities of a good leader?

To be clear, our research was less about what makes a good leader, and more about who we tend to perceive as leaders. These are two separate things: We call them "leadership effectiveness" and "leadership emergence."

Decades of research have established that there are certain things about people that make us more likely to see them as leaders, things which also make them more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.

For instance, people tend to still have subconscious biases favoring men when they are assessing whether people have leadership potential, and this bias is one of the main reasons for the gender gap in leadership promotions that has persisted since the 20th century.

Factors that determine leadership emergence — things that make you look like a leader to others — often don't have anything to do with the factors that promote leadership effectiveness. For instance, tall men tend to get promoted disproportionately frequently into leadership roles, but neither height nor gender necessarily makes you a better leader.

Your research talks about the relationship between personality traits and communication skills. What did you gather from the study that has not been told in the past?

We've tended to assume that extroverts have an advantage when it comes to leadership roles because their superior communication skills make them look more like natural leaders. Meta-analyses and reviews demonstrating the link from extroversion to leadership emergence have been remarkably inconsistent, a fact that has been mostly overlooked.

Our two studies provide consistent and replicated evidence that only half of the statement at the top of this paragraph is true: Yes, people with superior communication skills have a leadership advantage; but no, it's not extroversion that's important, since extroverts aren't necessarily any better at interpersonal communication than introverts or ambiverts.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone hiring for leadership roles?

The big takeaway from our research may be more for individuals than for organizations and managers. For years, introverts have read and been told that they're at a disadvantage, compared to extroverts, in terms of being viewed as leaders and being promoted into leadership roles. This was troublesome because extroversion is not something that can be taught; it's a stable personality difference, part of who you are. If this was true, then there would be nothing introverts could do to resolve or improve that disadvantage. But our research shows that it's communication skill, not extroversion, that is the important driver of leadership perceptions. That's important because communication skills can be learned, which means anyone can develop their communication skills to enhance their chances of being viewed as leadership material by others.

For someone hiring for leadership roles, the importance of leadership effectiveness versus emergence can't be overstated. We should be hiring for factors that enhance leadership effectiveness, not for factors that just make people look like a leader. Communication skills can certainly enhance the role of a leader, but extroversion on its own is likely not as important. To the contrary, some research shows that introverts may have advantages in many leadership situations, such as when more deliberate and methodical paces are appropriate (but that last bit is not part of our research).

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences while evaluating the results?

We only measured the participants' genders in this research. We did note that women tended to have higher scores on communication skills than men, which may have something to do with gender socialization and roles in which men stereotypically value independence and action, whereas women are associated with cooperation and conversation. If women have been 'primed' to think more about effective communication, it's not surprising that they might actually become better at it over the course of their lives.