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When you think of the defining characteristics of a successful leader, you may picture a bold, forceful personality like Donald Trump delivering firebrand speeches to hordes of devoted followers. Or, within the business world, perhaps you may envision a cocky, jovial Tony Stark type, effortlessly charismatic and always at home in the limelight.
Either way, you wouldn’t always be correct. In fact, to be an effective leader, you don’t need to be loud and outgoing at all; as many famous introverts have shown, quiet leadership can be just as fruitful as any other form of governance.
To prove it, we’ve compiled a list of seven introverted leaders who have embraced their personality and who have succeeded in their respective field as a result. From entrepreneurs to politicians and business leaders to creatives, all these great people are proof that you don’t need to be exuberant in order to get noticed.
1. Mark Zuckerberg
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As the cofounder and CEO of the world’s largest social network, it would be fair to assume that Mark Zuckerberg enjoys making connections with people. According to his COO Sheryl Sandberg, however, ‘the Zuck’ is just the opposite. Responding to his early portrayal in the media as aloof and conniving, Sandberg claimed that her boss was ‘shy’ and that although he ‘really cares about the people that work [at Facebook]’, he admittedly ‘does not seem very warm to people who don’t know him’. In short, Zuckerberg is a classic introvert, more at home coding and developing than schmoozing in public.
This doesn’t mean that he can’t communicate, though. In fact, when Zuckerberg engages in one-on-one conversations with partners, affiliates and other members of staff, his words actually carry more resonance, meaning that there is more depth to the business relationships that he does develop. Either way, his approach has certainly reaped dividends; as of late 2018, his personal net worth was estimated at $55 billion (£43.1 billion).
2. Marissa Mayer
Another Silicon Valley tech guru, former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer is a self-described introvert who literally forces herself to embrace her extroverted side. In a 2013 interview with Vogue, she admitted to despising parties – even when she was the host: ‘I will literally look at my watch and say, “you can’t leave until time X, and if you’re having a terrible time at time X, then you can leave”’. This is a classic sign of an introvert, many of whom find it draining to be around large crowds of people.
Although she may not be winning many plaudits on the social scene, her instincts have certainly served her well in the boardroom. Preferring to listen rather than speak, introverts take time to consider what they are being told and map out their next moves carefully. Like Zuckerberg, this approach has been wildly successful, with the shrewd strategist having cofounded and chaired several successful companies on top of a personal fortune of around $600m million (£470.3 million).
3. Barack Obama
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As one of the world’s most renowned orators, former US president Barack Obama might not initially strike you as an obvious candidate to be an introvert. But judging by the testimony of those who know him best (as well as in consideration of the comparison to his rather more ‘uninhibited’ presidential successor), the former lawyer actually bears many such traits.
Journalist Peter Baker, who spent time with Obama in 2010, made much of the then-president’s disdain for glad-handing and schmoozing (often to his publicity team’s dismay); his greatest public moments weren’t actually face to face, but rather when addressing TV cameras or large, impersonal crowds. Yet Obama, who through much of his presidency gave the impression of being understated and reserved, brought a much-needed rationality and sense of awareness to his job, which is one of the areas where introverts truly have an advantage in leadership.
4. Larry Page
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Often described as shy, reserved and ‘geeky’, Google cofounder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page is one of the more obvious introverts on this list, although his admission of suffering from vocal cord paralysis – which has softened his voice and made lengthy conversations difficult – may also be a factor. His recent disappearance from public life may be more of an indication of his introvert tendencies, though, with the 45-year-old now said to be spending most of his time on his private Caribbean island, away from the glare of public life.
Although Page’s early management style was assertive and aggressive, he became an exponent of delegation during Google’s growth years – a trademark aspect of introverted leadership.
5. Albert Einstein
Although not a leader in the sense of holding a recognised position of power, Albert Einstein – one of the most influential and recognisable scientists in modern history – was an undisputed leader in his field, as well as one of the few people on this list to openly embrace and encourage his own introverted nature.
Once quoted as claiming that the ‘monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind’, Einstein’s observations on the link between isolation and creativity is noticeable throughout this list. While many modern organisations prefer their employees to develop ideas within teams, Einstein – along with many other famous discoverers, such as Nikola Tesla – saw the greatest value in doing things alone.
6. Steve Wozniak
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That preference for seclusion was certainly shared by Steve Wozniak, who cofounded Apple in 1976 with Steve Jobs, and was responsible for the design of many of their most famous and pioneering products. Indeed, in his 2006 autobiography iWoz (paid link), Wozniak attributed solitude as the catalyst for much of his inspiration, claiming that ‘[nothing] really revolutionary has been invented by committee’, and that if he had one piece of advice for engineers, inventors and artists, it would be to ‘work alone’.
In the book, Wozniak also asserts that he, ‘like many inventors and engineers’, is ‘shy and… lives in [his] head’, a giveaway sign of his introverted nature. Through his collaboration with the extroverted Jobs, though, the two were able to establish Apple as one of the largest technology companies on the planet, as well as pioneers in the wider development of computer technology.
7. Steven Spielberg
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Another visionary and industry leader, Steven Spielberg is also a self-confessed introvert; not surprising for a man who has spent most of his life behind a camera, rather than in front of it. Yet his quiet, inward nature was accelerated by the anti-Semitic bullying he suffered growing up, which he claimed turned him into a loner and exacerbated his sense of withdrawal and self-consciousness.
Indeed, even to this day, Spielberg asserts that he dislikes parties and large social gatherings, and claims that he gets tongue-tied with strangers, although you wouldn’t think it, given the enormous nature of his success and the popularity of his films. Interestingly, though, the understated and reflective nature of his introverted character is present in several of his more sombre works, including in his unabashed depiction of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List and the unflinching portrayal of the Normandy landings in Saving Private Ryan.
As you can see, you don’t need to be loud – metaphorically or otherwise – to be successful; in fact, in many instances, the qualities that define introverts also make for strong and thoughtful leaders. After all, success stories come in many shapes and sizes, and being quiet and reserved in nature is one of them.
What other famous introverts have inspired you? Let us know in the comments section below!
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