Bill Clinton with Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention.
The latest salvo comes from John Heilemann, a leading chronicler of the Obama presidency, in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I knowhe doesn’t like people,” Mr. Heilemann said of the president, contrasting him with the effervescent Bill Clinton. “He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert.”
Mr. Heilemann may be right that Mr. Obama is an introvert, but his apparent sense of what the word means is wrong. Introverts like people just as much as extroverts do, and often care deeply about them. They just don’t want to be surrounded by crowds 24/7 and they tend to prefer the company of close friends and colleagues. There’s little evidence that Mr. Obama dislikes people — only that he socializes in a more intimate, less backslapping style than the typical politician.
Considering the fact that Mitt Romney has also been criticized for being too reserved, we might as well get used to the fact that, no matter the outcome of the election, we won’t have an extrovert in the White House for at least another four years. And that gives us an opportunity to address our popular misconceptions about what leadership really involves.
Culturally, we tend to associate leadership with extroversion and attach less importance to judgment, vision and mettle. We prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say. In 2004, we praised George W. Bush because we wanted to drink a beer with him. Now we criticize President Obama because he won’t drink one with us.
The nation’s premier leadership training grounds, like Harvard Business School and West Point, are particularly good places to explore attitudes about leadership. At Harvard Business School, an institution that one graduate described to me as “the spiritual capital of extroversion,” grades are based half on class participation, and first years do most of their studying in mandatory groups called learning teams. Students are expected to be relentlessly social outside of class, too. “I go out at night like it’s my job,” one student told me.
At West Point, where I had the honor of addressing a group this week, the cadets were thoughtful about the traits good leaders possess — and how easy it is to prioritize them incorrectly. “I think we tend to get it backwards,” one cadet told me. “We become so focused on becoming leaders that we see that development as an end in itself and therefore become less eager to truly get behind something and have a purposive direction in which to lead.”
Many of this nation’s finest leaders have been extroverts — but plenty have not. Jim Collins, in his study of the best-performing companies of the late 20th century, found that they were all led by chief executives known primarily for their fierce will and dedication — and were often described with words like “reserved” and “understated.”
“The one and only personality trait the effective ones I have encountered did have in common,” wrote the author and management consultant Peter Drucker on leaders, “was something they did not have: they had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.”
One such extraordinary leader is the former Marine commandant and self-described introvert Gen. Charles C. Krulak. In an interview last week, General Krulak told me that he wasn’t the kind of leader who was “out there waving a banner and riding a white charger.” He didn’t visit the officers’ club very often, preferring to stay in on weekends. And he stepped back before making decisions, often excusing himself from a meeting to consider his options in solitude.
He knew that his style made him appear less social, less aggressive than the Marine Corps norm. But he believed that in the long run he’d be judged by the soundness of his decisions and the strength of his character. When he volunteered, during the Vietnam War, to rescue a platoon trapped under sniper fire in an open rice paddy, no one cared how many jokes he’d cracked or beers he’d drunk on his last R & R.
Introverted leaders often possess an innate caution that may be more valuable than we realize. President Clinton’s extroversion served him well but may have contributed to conduct that almost derailed his presidency. It’s impossible to imagine the cautious and temperate Mr. Obama mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Would it be better if Mr. Obama palled around with more senators, attended more cocktail parties, cut a schmoozier figure? Sure. P.R. is part of a politician’s job. And as the personality psychologist Brian Little says, we all need to act out of character occasionally, for the sake of work or people we love.
But on the long list of attributes of a successful president — or of any leader — an outgoing persona is low on the list. The charisma of ideas matters more than a leader’s gregarious charms.
Susan Cain is the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”