A quieter kind of leadership

Introverts can be inspiring, effective leaders — if they can convince themselves they won’t hate it

Image Credit: Kelsey Wroten

In what is nowhere near the most unrealistic scene on Grey’s Anatomy, a group of interns is given a difficult case to solve together without an attending physician to guide them. The goal is to determine who among them is the natural leader.

On the TV show, the winner of this challenge is referred to as “The Gunther”. In the real world, a person who takes charge in a situation without formal structure is called “an emergent leader”.

These emergent leaders tend to be extroverts rather than introverts. There is little research as to why, but the authors of a recent study discovered one compelling explanation after studying emergent leadership among business students. They found that “introverts tended to forecast more negative affect than extroverts because they overestimate the negative emotions they will experience.”

To put it more simply: It’s not that introverts won’t excel at or enjoy taking leadership in these situations — it’s that they think they won’t.

But according to the study and introverts in leadership positions, this doesn’t have to be a barrier to leadership potential. If that negative forecasting can be put in perspective, introverts can and do thrive as natural leaders on their own terms.

Leadership seems scary

Before completing a group problem-solving activity, the introverts in the study identified with the statements “I will feel fearful; I will feel worried; I will feel distressed; I will feel upset; I will feel nervous.”

Leslie Marshall, who was a professor for more than a decade, says that these feelings kept him from trying to move into new roles. “I had that sort of reluctance when you see where a situation is going, and was fairly slow in moving into managerial, supervisory positions,” he confesses. After challenging his own ideas about what leadership needed to look like, he is now Manager of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Mohawk College in Ontario.

Suzanne MacNeil’s experiences are similar. She admits “In situations without a defined leader, I’ve always loved when other people have stepped forward.” But she recently let herself be talked into a successful run for President of the Halifax Dartmouth and District Labour Council, and says “Once I’m in a leadership position, it’s never as bad as I think it’s going to be.”

How introverts can lead

MacNeil’s experience supports the study’s hypothesis that “if introverts can develop strategies to more accurately forecast their enjoyment of behavior more conducive to emergent leadership, then it is possible that such individuals will be on a level playing field with extroverts in relevant social situations.”

For those who have been able to envision how the benefits of leadership might suit them, their new positions often turn out to be compatible with their introversion after all.

Roselyne Bourgault, Director of Business Development at Q&T Research, rattles off a list of introverts’ worst nightmares: “I dislike crowds, or speaking with groups of people. I don’t like offices, small talk, conferences where I have to network.” But her position has actually given her a break from those tasks. “A leadership role has given me the luxury of surrounding myself with people who enjoy that kind of thing,” she says. “So I can be really selective about when I take that work on.”

An introvert in leadership can also start a chain reaction. After being recruited into leadership, MacNeil hires and encourages others to do the same. “Oftentimes, people need a little bit of extra kick in the arse to sort of get them going,” she says, “but once they do something and realize that they can, it turns out to be an entry point for more.”

So who was the Gunther?

At the end of that episode of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s revealed that the test is called “The Gunther” because the first winner was a quiet man named Gunther who wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Workplaces need to get Gunthers on their radar. Because, as the study argues, “the tendency for introverts to not emerge as leaders is problematic because there are many situations whereby introverted characteristics are synonymous with good leadership.”

Introverts like Marshall would agree.

“I can think of situations where I’ve been able to influence the direction of things or decisions,” he says. “Within the group, I’m pretty sure that if you asked them afterwards they wouldn’t be able to tell you whose idea it had originally been.”


Audra Williams watches a lot of Grey’s Anatomy because it makes her feel better about her own competence.


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