The Introvert Executive and the Intersection with "Good to Great"

The Houston house, where this introvert recharges.

The Houston house, where this introvert recharges.

At a recent business event, the luncheon speaker lauded celebrity CEOs, making a shockingly weak argument that their charisma somehow correlates with their companies' success. He didn't cite numbers to prove it, but simply gave anecdotes about how CEOs you've never heard of didn't have long tenures, while "brand-name" CEOs had great success and long careers.

Sigh. I could pick apart his argument in depth, but it'll get me off topic. "Extroverts are awesome" isn't exactly a new thing to hear, and it's not unusual for someone to assume that a big personality means an impressive skill set. The world is enamored of extroverts in every capacity. People are drawn to big, brash personalities. True for celebrities, true for politicians, and true for businesspeople.

I'm an introvert. I enjoy people, and I even enjoy big events. But though I have fun while I'm with a big group or at a party, I find it exhausting. I need to recharge afterward. And I'm definitely at my best in smaller groups, where I can fully engage with people and get to know them. Some people like surface, some people like deep. I like deep.

But the luncheon presentation got me thinking again about the myth of the celebrity CEO, especially as that personality type relates to the health and success of a business. And that musing reminded me of Jim Collins's research, which he recounted in Built to Last and Good to Great.


As told in these books, Collins and a team of students spent five years examining why some companies achieved "great" results and sustained them over decades, while others in the same industries struggled or subsisted at a mediocre level. The team studied twenty-eight companies in minute detail, and defined great results as generating cumulative stock returns that averaged seven times better than the general stock market over fifteen years.

Collins and his group identified seven key factors that they argue help determine corporate greatness. If you haven’t read the books, you should. I won't summarize all their findings here.

But what they found—or didn't find—about CEOs isn't what they—or anyone else—would have expected:

"Compared to high-profile leaders with big personalities who make headlines and become celebrities, the good-to-great leaders seem to have come from Mars. Self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy—these leaders are a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will."

I truly believe this. Perhaps I'm biased, because I'm no celebrity CEO, and I don’t have a big, bold personality. Richard Branson and Jack Welch, I’m not.

But I agree that a person with incredible determination—a willingness to roll up her sleeves and do anything that needs to be done—combined with a willingness to listen to others, share credit, be part of the team, and see the collective as greater than the individual is a better leader and a better chief executive than someone enamored with her cult of celebrity or her own genius.

Not to say that all extroverts are bulls in china shops. Just as all introverts aren't shy. Nothing is absolute. I'm just wondering, mayhaps, if there's a correlation between introversion and the "great" companies' CEOs--which Collins and his team called "Level 5 Leaders." Their research didn’t look at that aspect of the leaders’ personalities directly, but my gut tells me there’s something there.

And if there is, are we undervaluing the introvert executive?