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The ‘Quiet’ Dean: Rethinking the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ of Leadership

Leadership and Management

The ‘Quiet’ Dean: Rethinking the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ of Leadership

Memo to academic leaders: I am sitting quietly in my dean’s office, a serene place I first occupied in 1986, reflecting on a book by Susan Cain, one that I think you all should read, titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I would much rather communicate to you from my peaceful digs by way of a memo than to set forth my ideas in a sparkling speech at a conference. Perhaps like you—or perhaps not—I am an introvert and quick to admit it. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert (and so many academic leaders now embody the “extrovert ideal” of our contemporary culture), you will find Cain’s book informative, thoughtful, and (even) practical.

Let me at the outset ask you to reflect (introverts, after all, are reflective thinkers) on a few questions:

  1. Do you know whether you are an introvert or an extrovert? If you have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Inventory or some similar self-assessment on personality, you may have already made that determination. As you know, extroverts tend to be energized by crowds and social interaction, quickly say whatever comes to mind, often think out loud, would rather talk than listen, and gravitate toward group work and committees where they can shine. They are comfortable with conflict but not solitude. As Cain observes, “We are told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable.” (Page 3) Introverts are just the opposite—they prefer the quiet, contemplative life; listen well; and prefer to work individually. The contrast, to oversimplify, is between action-oriented, quick decision makers and solitude-oriented, cautious decision makers. Both can be effective leaders.
  2. Are introversion and extroversion fixed personality traits or learned patterns of behavior? Early researchers, from Carl Jung (see his 1921 classic Psychological Types) forward, have argued that indeed introversion and extroversion are fixed traits, while more recent scholarship by a group of psychologists known as the Situationists suggests that there is no core self but “only the various selves of Situations X, Y, and Z.” (Page 2006) Nature-nurture debates still abound. Cain says that the most recent research concludes that there really is such a thing as a fixed personality, but some psychologists hold to the notion that these personality traits tend to occur in patterns, with some people being aggressive with subordinates but not so much with authority figures, while others may have opposite tendencies. And, of course, there are continuums from extreme to moderate to mild on both concepts in the extroversion/introversion scale. I see myself as a moderate introvert.
  3. Why has our contemporary society elevated the extrovert ideal? Now leaders are supposed to be high-energy risk takers and out-front sales representatives for their ideas as well as for the institutional initiatives they are expected to advocate. Cain traces that evolution in our culture through the earlier efforts of spokesmen and authors such as Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) to current management seminars by Tony Robbins and to graduate degree programs such as the Harvard MBA. That we live in a world where personality and celebrity are constantly advanced by media pundits and social media outlets contributes to the ascendency of the “leader as extrovert.” But Wharton management professor Adam Grant has conducted extensive research that shows the correlation between extroversion and leadership to be, at best, modest. In fact, introverted leaders in this study were more effective with proactive employees. (Page 56) They are especially good at supporting, nurturing, and advancing the great ideas of those they lead.
  4. Why do institutions—and this would certainly include colleges and universities—need introverts in positions of significant leadership? This is where you and I come into the conversation. Cain argues that institutions that neglect the leadership skills of introverts are missing the boat.

Introverts in higher education leadership
Susan Cain, a professed introvert, left the hurly-burly of her work as a Wall Street lawyer to become an academic—not a college professor, but one who would devote her time and effort to research and writing about introversion and extroversion. The academy has always been an attractive career option for introverts. That is natural because academic research and college teaching appeal to those who enjoy quiet study, the development of intellect, and what has traditionally been seen as the peaceful “groves of academe.” Cain points out that education in our time has been increasingly focused on the extrovert ideal—group work, cooperative learning, leadership training, and the like. Most teachers, she notes, see the extroverted individual as the ideal student. Many professors continue to love the solitary life while not only living “in their heads” but also while sharing their insights in one-on-one interactions with students in small seminar classes and by writing for their professional disciplines.

Such individuals may even develop their skills as “pseudo extroverts,” as Cain calls them, who can gear themselves up for large-class instruction and “performance teaching” although such efforts often drain their energy, while such interactions enhance the energy of extroverts. Although introverts typically avoid self-promotion, they are sometimes recognized for their academic talents and promoted to positions as department chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents. They are, however, the exceptions.

Should you be one of those individuals, you might want to reflect on some of these ideas and strategies for being a successful academic leader:

  1. Remember that the academic life is particularly dependent on thinkers. While academic leaders do have to have skills enhancing salesmanship, quick decisions, group dynamics, and (even) self-promotion and promotion of their most worthy ideas, the heart of the academy lies in developing the mind and the character of their students. That is to say, the academic curriculum is inherently and substantively compatible with the talents of introverts.
  2. Develop the pseudo-extrovert skills that will help you be successful as a leader. Cain says that “many people, especially those in leadership roles, engage in a certain level of pretend-extroversion.” (Page 210) This is not the same as “faking it” but rather demonstrates that you can act decisively, speak confidently, and work harmoniously with those you lead. Introverts can develop “people skills” to help them become more effective leaders. Promoting harmony, listening well, and advancing the worthy ideas of others are useful introvert skills, but we cannot be isolated hermits who avoid social interaction and tough decisions.
  3. Learn how to talk with extroverts. Cain believes that “… the two types are often drawn to each other—in friendship, business, and especially romance.” (Page 224) As the old saying has it, “opposites attract.” We need each other and can complement one another—drawing on the strengths of one another to form a more balanced whole. While introverts need not try to transform their own personalities into the “extrovert ideal” of leadership, they can both develop their own communication strengths and develop helpful relationships with their extrovert counterparts.
  4. Rely on your introvert strengths in rethinking the nature of leadership. For example, Cain points out that much of the essence of modern leadership depends on listening ability, where introverts often excel. When it comes to negotiating, something all academic leaders have to do, “it often pays to be quiet and gracious, to listen more than to talk, and to have an instinct for harmony rather than conflict.” (Page 216) Women as academic leaders often excel in this approach, a gentler style of leadership also advocated in classic texts by John Heider in The Tao of Leadership and by Linda Lambert and Mary Gardner in Women’s Ways of Leading. Other more recent books, such as Quiet, are advancing the introvert-as-leader mission: Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference (2013), Introverts at Ease: An Insider’s Guide to a Great Life on Your Terms (2011), and The Quiet Guide for Getting Ahead (2009)—to mention a few intriguing titles. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a new leadership paradigm! Good leaders know how to take strong positions without creating resentment and anger as they pour oil on troubled waters, a common theme in all these works.
  5. Promote balance, both in yourself and in your institution. At the individual level, introverts can find “restorative niches” when “you want to return to your true self.” (Page 219) This can be a physical place as a retreat for solitude or even a psychological niche during a meeting. Extroverts who need a restorative niche after intense, isolated focus on a report can likewise schedule a social event to return to their true selves. Every academic institution needs both kinds of leaders—extroverts to excite the passions of passive faculty and introverts “who are uniquely good at leading initiative takers.” (Page 57)

Concluding thoughts

Although our contemporary society tends to exalt the extrovert ideal for leaders (an aspect of a cultural shift in our dynamic, fast-paced world), academic leaders would do well to avoid the downside of extroversion—unwarranted risk taking, superficial salesmanship, “groupthink”—while remembering that creativity and problem solving thrive in what Cain calls “the inner landscapes” of introverts, which “are rich and full of drama.” (Page 266) Our extrovert colleagues and leaders can benefit from our different perspectives.

In our high-tech, change-oriented culture, privacy is almost nonexistent and quiet contemplation is a diminishing possibility for academic leaders. Or so it seems to us introverts. Not to worry or fret. As Cain concludes, “Introverts are offered keys to private gardens full of riches.” (Page 266) Use those keys to open the door of academic leadership. Your institution needs your gifts.


Cain, Susan. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishing.

 Thomas R. McDaniel is senior vice president and professor of education at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. He serves on the Academic Leader editorial advisory board.


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