“Here’s a curious fact: for the better part of two decades the ADF (Australian Defence Force) has been led by quiet, at times understated leaders, who put a premium on calmness and seldom raise their voices in anger.”[i] This is not the stereotypical leader we expect in the army or even in business. Surely the best leaders are loud, outgoing, assertive people who seek attention and act dominant.
Apparently not. According to research conducted by Grant, Gino and Hofmann[ii] extroverted leaders can significantly decrease employee proactivity. In the research, they define extroverted leaders as having ‘a tendency to engage in behaviours that place oneself at the centre of attention, such as seeking status and acting dominant, assertive, outgoing and talkative.’ Their findings suggest that extraverted leaders are more likely to be viewed as ’less receptive to follower’s suggestions’. In the end result, group productivity under extroverted leaders was lower than under an introverted leader.
In separate research, the authors (Vergauwe, Wille, Hofmans, Kaiser, & Fruyt, 2017)[iii] connected the perception of too much charisma with a decrease in overall leadership effectiveness. They maintain that observers rate the peak effectiveness of a leader at around the 50th percentile on the charisma scale. In contrast the actual leader rates their effectiveness as continuing to rise the higher their charisma.
Does this mean that outgoing or dominant leaders are doomed? Not at all – it simply means that we all bring strengths and weaknesses to our leadership style. For instance, in the research mentioned earlier (Grant, Gino, & Hofmans, 2011), extroverted leaders improved productivity in groups that were already disengaged.
The first hurdle to overcome: to make sure that leaders are not invalidated for having quiet personalities or a lack of the conventional traits that we associate with leaders. The second hurdle is an extension of the first: leaders with conventional leadership traits will in fact have significant performance downsides and hence are not superior to quiet leaders.
We are currently obsessed with the mantra; ‘I am a Leader’, where it would be better to live by the understanding that sometimes ‘we lead’. Leadership is an activity not just a reflection of attributes or personality. [iv] Different leaders are needed for different challenges and simply put, a positive outcome is based on the ability of a leader to act in such a way that an organisation or group is helped in a particular situation. This means that a variety of skills, personality and experience can converge to create an opportunity to lead in the right circumstances. Although leaders come in all shapes and sizes, quiet leaders have the advantageous tendency to get on with leadership work rather than claiming leadership status.
There is a growing contention among leadership advocates that the day of the dominant, aggressive, autocratic leader is finished. Even on this front it is hard to be definitive. There are remedial, and often dangerous, situations that converge with a demand for dominant people to provide help and safety. During the evacuation of Gallipoli in 1915 the 'best known personality on Anzac Beach' was Charles Littler. He was the beach commandant responsible for getting troops off the beach and into the safety of the transport ships. He is noted to have been 'a brave, honourable and experienced leader whose slowness of promotion was due to an unfortunate outspokenness’.[v] He was well respected by his subordinates.
Rather than continually talking about the ‘attributes’ of leaders and comparing leaders with each other, we should develop an environment where people who lead are acknowledged and nurtured for the contribution they make rather than just their status or position.
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[i] Jennings, P. (2014, June 18). The ADF's quiet leaders. The Strategist. Retrieved December 31, 2017, from https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-adfs-quiet-leaders/
[ii]Grant, A., Gino, F., & Hofmans, D. (2011). Reversing the extroverted leadership advantage: The role of employee proactivity. Academy of Management Journal, 54(3), pp. 528-550.
[iii] Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Hofmans, J., Kaiser, R., & Fruyt, F. D. (2017, September 26). Too Much Charisma Can Make Leaders Look Less Effective. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2017/09/too-much-charisma-can-make-leaders-look-less-effective
[iv] see Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. (Page 19f) and Harris, B. (2013) The Tortoise usually Wins. Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press (Page 5f)
[v] Higgins, M. (n.d.). Littler, Charles Augustus Murray (1868–1916). Retrieved Jan 21, 2018, from Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/littler-charles-augustus-murray-7210