Natural skills such as listening and thoughtfulness can be an advantage when working toward leadership positions.
Megan Riddle, MD, PhD, MS, considers herself a lifelong introvert, and for a long time she didn’t think of herself as a leader. It wasn’t until she found herself in a leadership position by chance that she realized that she was suited for the job.
“I think when you are typically kind of the quiet one in the room, you don’t necessarily naturally think, ‘Oh, yeah, I want to sign up for that leadership role,’ or ‘I want to run for office in medical school,’ ” Riddle says. “And if you don’t think of yourself that way, then you don’t have to step into those opportunities.”
Now Riddle is the chief resident of psychiatry inpatient and emergency services at the University of Washington — a leadership role she has held for several months.
“There is a widespread misconception that to be a successful leader, introverts are disadvantaged,” says Patricia Williams, MD, a certified master practitioner of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and adjunct professor at American University. “In fact, there have been some studies that suggest that in medicine, the higher you go as a leader, the more likely you are to be an introvert.”
One 2011 study, “Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage,” published by the Academy of Management Journal, suggested that extroverted leaders actually can be detrimental to group performance when employees are inclined to demonstrate proactive behavior, such as voicing constructive ideas and taking personal initiative to improve work methods. Conversely, though, when employees aren’t proactive, extroverted leaders can help increase performance.
“[Introverts] can often give people a sense of calm because they seem outwardly unraveled,” Williams says. “The problem with extroverted leaders is they are not always comfortable with silence, so they don’t always listen as well as introverted leaders do.”
Over the years, Riddle has realized that she does things differently than many of her colleagues, especially when it comes to interacting with others and participating in meetings.
“I think as introverts we tend to think more, talk less, which sometimes has its advantages and allows for a little more diplomacy,” Riddle said. “I think that we are good at reading other people and, you know, having that sort of emotional intelligence, which can be really beneficial in leadership positions.”
Being comfortable in her role as a leader took time and dedication to mastering skills that didn’t necessarily come naturally to her, but Riddle has powered through by giving herself permission to be herself instead of scolding herself internally for the things she’s not doing.
Introverts can learn to use natural skills such as listening and thoughtfulness to their advantage when working towards leadership positions, Riddle says. She also recommends cultivating mentorships and, importantly, taking the time needed to recharge.
As Riddle transitioned into her role as chief resident, she noticed that her colleagues have begun to change the way the treat her. “I have realized that I am capable of doing this, and other people also think of me that way and think of me as a leader, so it just becomes more comfortable,” she says. “When I push myself to say something at a meeting, people will listen because they respect what I have to say.”
After years of working with doctors on both sides of the spectrum, Williams believes leadership has less to do with whether a person is introverted or extroverted and more to do with self-awareness.
“I find that there are not advantages or disadvantages,” she says, “it’s just that the issues are different.”
Williams says introversion and extroversion describe an individual’s preference, not a permanent state of being. The question is really about which style of relating is more personally invigorating. She compares it right- or left-handedness. While everyone has a preference, it is possible to learn to use the other hand if circumstances demand it.