January 2011 | 

Extravert Pros and Cons: When It Doesn’t Pay to be an Extravert Leader

Extravert Pros and Cons

During a recent session of Wharton's Advanced Management Program, former Schwab CEO David Pottruck spoke about his extraverted leadership style. "Passion can be a double-edged sword. There is no doubt that people are looking for leaders with passion about their mission and their work. But there are times when that passion can be overwhelming." He explained, "I've been in brainstorming sessions where my overwhelming passion for a given idea shut down the search for new ideas. I realized I needed to sometimes dial down the expression of my passion. It took me a while to learn, and I'm still working on it!"

Pottruck's example exemplifies the new research findings of Wharton management professor Adam Grant, whose forthcoming article "Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage" (coauthored with Francesca Gino and David Hofmann) reveals some of the downsides of an extraverted leadership style. Here, Grant synthesizes his study, and provides some clear guidance for extraverted executives.

"Most leaders are extraverts," says Grant. "They're naturally attracted to positions in which they can command the center of attention. They often speak boldly, express enthusiasm, and engage with a wide range of audiences. Research demonstrates that extraversion is the best personality predictor of being promoted to leadership roles, and that extraverted leaders are typically viewed as more effective than their more introverted counterparts."

However, as David Pottruck found in his own career, there are circumstances in which extraverted leadership can be a liability. Grant continues, "Organizations today are more global and dynamic, and operate at a more rapid pace. That makes it less likely that leaders have all of the information they need to formulate a strategic vision. In those situations, leaders depend on employees to be proactive in contributing ideas for improving strategies and developing ways to implement them more effectively."

But for an extraverted leader, these proactive behaviors from employees can be problematic. Says Grant, "Because extraverted leadership involves being the center of attention, many extraverts are threatened when employees take initiative to change their visions and strategies. Extraverted leaders tend to be less comfortable operating in a context where employees need to be initiators, shaping strategy. In our studies, we found that extraverted leaders responded less receptively to employees' proactive ideas, which limited their effectiveness."

The more that extraverted leaders need to depend on employees for strategy, vision, and implementation, the more important it is for them to, as Pottruck expressed it, "dial back" their style. Grant suggests, "This often involves being more reserved, asking more questions, seeking and considering suggestions, and being willing to serve as a facilitator rather than dominating meetings with your own ideas. When you're in a complex situation and you need input from employees to formulate and refine strategy, it's critical that you adapt your style to encourage and support proactivity."

But is adaptation authentic?

Grant teaches in the Executive Education program Implementing Strategy: Leading Effective Execution, in which he enables leaders to gain a deeper understanding of their own styles and of the environments in which they lead. Often, those styles need to be flexible. But is leadership "authentic" if you're changing your style? Grant says, "Absolutely. We all have multiple styles, and one of the challenges of leadership is to step outside your comfort zone and adapt to the demands of the task at hand."

Citing the research of Dr. Brian Little, who asserts that many of our everyday behaviors involve "acting out of character," Grant continues, "What some might call 'acting out of character' is overriding what is most comfortable, but we often do it to serve important values. It's sometimes necessary to sacrifice a bit of comfort to lead effectively."