Susan Cain – Quiet Leadership – Catalyst 2012

Recently I had the chance to attend this lovely salon for women of two different generations, the idea was for the older generation to impart its wisdom to the younger. I was asked to speak about my regrets in life. My first regret is that I'm now, apparently, is a member of the older generation.

My deeper regret is that as an introvert I didn't try to leverage my own natural powers and spent too much time trying to be an extrovert.

It started when I was a child. At 9 years old I went to summer camp for the first time, and my mother packed me a suitcase of books. In my family, reading was the group activity. And so I thought camp was going to be just like this, only better. I had this vision of 10 girls sitting cozily in a cabin in matching nightgowns.

Camp was much more like a keg party without alcohol. Our counselor taught us a cheer which set the tone for the rest of the summer: R-O-W-D-I-E, Rowdy, Rowdy!

The first time I pulled a book out, the coolest girl in the cabin asked me why I was being so mellow. And the camp counselor talked about the need for camp spirit.

I tell you this story not because it was particularly traumatic but because it is emblematic of many stories throughout my life where I was subtly told I needed to be an extrovert.

I became a Wall Street lawyer because I wanted to prove what I could do instead of being the lawyer I wanted to be, went to crowded bars instead of having a quiet drink with our friend.

It is not just our loss but our colleagues' loss and the world's loss, because the world needs what introverts do best.

Introverts, as I'm sure you know through your experiences, you're forever being obliged to participate in these group exercises whether you like them or not. Introverts actually work quite well in groups, but they don't like these spontaneous groupings that come up out of no where.

Now let's think a little bit more about who you truly are. Six questions:

  • I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
  • I enjoy work that allows me to go in depth without many interruptions.
  • I tend to do my best work on my own.
  • I tend to think before I speak.
    • Extroverts tend to process verbally
  • I displike small talk, but enjoy talking in depth about topics that really matter to me.
  • After attending a fun party for, say, 2 hours, I start to wish I were at home in my pajamas.
    • This is why restrooms tend to be crowded at parties.

The more you answer true, the more introverted you tend to be.

Famous Introverts:

  • Einstein - It's not that I'm so smart.  It's that I stay with problems longer.
    • Introverts tend to stay with problems longer and think more before jumping in.
    • Introverts tend to get better grades, even though they aren't any smarter.
  • JK Rowling - Spent 5 years planning Harry Potter before actually sitting down to write it.
  • Warren Buffett

Famous Extroverts

  • Reagan
  • Oprah
  • Bill Clinton

Notice how vivid these portraits are.  There is a delightful, vivid, bubbly, champagne like quality.  Extroverts tend to get super-excited.  It's this exuberance we tend to be so attracted to.

There's two types of being: thoughtful and seize the day.  We need both.  Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sanders.  They're complimentary.

Introverts and extroverts both have strengths and downsides/blind spots.  We know that the most effective teams are a mix of the two types.

I believe deeply that these two types are as fundamental to our personality as our gender.

However, we all fall at different points along the introvert/extrovert spectrum.  There's no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert.

People who fall right in the middle of the spectrum are ambiverts.

What's really important here is not just who you are but why you are the way you are.  What it has to do with is how you react to stimulation.

Introverts feel at their most alive in calm, quiet, peaceful environments.  Extroverts have to have stimulation or the feel like they're not themselves.

Introverts want to socialize in less stimulating ways.  Many introverts invest their social energy into the people they're closest to, their families, close friends.

Just to show you how deep and wide this is: One of the oldest studies shows that introverts will salivate more than extroverts when a drop of lemon juice is placed on their tongue because they react more strongly to stimulation.  Another study shows that extroverts perform better at math problems with background noise, introverts perform better in silence.

We have radically preferred extroverts in our society with the amount of stimulation present:

  • Group work in schools
  • Open plan offices
    • These are horrible.  They make people sick.  They actually lead to fewer friendships.
  • Religious Services - The way we do them now works beautifully for a proportion of our congregations, but there's a sizable number of people who feel overwhelmed and out of place.  Adam McCue questions his own commitment because he doesn't want to worship in an outward way.

When psychologists look at who the most spectacularly creative people have been over time, they almost always find people who have serious streaks of introverts in them.  These people are usually extroverts in a sense.  They're extroverted enough to go out and exchange their ideas.  No matter what society they're living in, no matter how much their society compels them to operate in groups, they find solitude.  It's what makes them so successful.

Philipe Starke is one of the great designers of our time.  It's basically a grand exercise in solitude.  "From the middle of June to the middle of September, I don't speak to anyone, read magazines, watch TV, or go to cocktail parties.  I'm alone, not repeating what everyone else is saying, trying to find my own way of doing things."

A lot of what is so great about solitude is that when you are by yourself you are not being tainted by what other people think.  You can tune into what is going on in your heart, mind, and soul.  In a group we are such social creatures that we are radically influenced by the group.  Humans by nature are conformist, even those who are intentionally non-conformist.

Solomon Ash, a psychologist who studied conformity, went to his grave wondering if people actually believe the falsity the group is purporting or if they're telling a falsehood.  Recent research says they actually believe the falsehood, even if it is evidently untrue.

You cannot be in a group of people without instinctively coming to mimic their opinions.  We're not aware of this.  People tend to report that they're coming to their conclusions on their own.

The other problem with groups is not only that we're following their opinion, but we're typically following the opinion of the most assertive or charismatic person.  We behave as if assertion means rightness.

We do this automatically.  We don't even know it's happening.

So how do we stop?  How do we think differently and independently?

How to wage a quiet revolution:

  • Rethink Meetings
    • Ask people to actively prepare in advance before a meeting.  We know from 40 years of research that people who brainstorm on their own produce more and better ideas.
    • Half-way through the meeting stop and ask everyone to reflect, and then go around the room in order and have people report on ideas.
    • Have people make better use of electronic brainstorming.  This is the one exception to individuals doing a better job of brainstorming.  When they come together electronically, they do even better.  It removes a lot of the barriers to effective communication that pop up in various situaitons.
  • Rethink Leadership
    • We tend to think of people who are really good talkers.
    • This is backwards.  We need to be more concerned with who really has something to say.
    • This has been borne out in various forms of leadership.  Jim Collins in Good to Great seeks to figure out what makes companies stand out from their peers.  And he didn't want to look at leadership, but he couldn't help it.  Each great company had a CEO with a fierce sense of mission but who was described as quiet, shy, reserved, etc.  In Silicon Valley level 5 leadership is found more often, Larry Page, Marissa Meyer.  Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks.  Gandhi said his shyness stopped him from saying something stupid.  They were motivated by their missions.  General Charles Krulak was the commander of the entire US Marine Corps, but he is an extreme introvert.  He said that he has to remind himself to make eye contact and steel himself before giving a speech or heading to a cocktail party, but in Vietnam he volunteered for an incredibly dangerous mission because he empathized with his comrades in danger.
  • Rethink Spirituality
    • We forget that solitude is related to transcendence.  Religious leaders always go off by themselves to the wilderness: Moses, Buddha, Jesus.

To the introverts in the room and those of you who feel like you're on the shy side: The key to exercising your great potential is to get into the habit of figuring out what your convictions are.  What do you truly think and feel about this?  From your conviction will come your courage.

To the extroverts and the gregarious: May you also cultivate the habits of solitude.  Know what you truly think and connect with the divine in ways that are not possible in a group setting.

To all of you: This quiet revolution is one of the great diversity issues of our time.

Posted at 4:42 PM on October 3rd, 2012
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