Introverted Leadership

Amongst the spate of celebrity deaths over Christmas was one that only slightly stippled the sea of press coverage. On Christmas Eve, the author Richard Adams died at the ripe old age of 96. He was best known for writing Watership Down, a tale of rabbits.

Not promising, but it is such a tale of rabbits. When I was a child I must have read it dozens of times, to the extent that it became a running joke with family friends. I still have my bruised and battered copy signed by Adams. But it is not a children’s book. The themes are of prophets and prophecy, politics and leadership, refugees seeking a new home, religion and story, freedom and well-being, dictatorship and social control, war and peace, human relationship with the rest of nature, and many others. These I can now understand, having recently reread it as an adult.

Why did I enjoy reading and rereading it so much? Partly because the setting was not far from my childhood home – I knew the country. Partly because it is a great story – *** SPOILER ALERT *** the good guys hoodwink the bad guys big league, and peace wins. And partly because it reflected an important part of my character back at me.

That’s only something I came to understand when I read an article by Susan Cain, following up on her TED talk on “The Power of Introverts”. Cain’s original message – that we introverts exist and have plenty to offer – was not new to me. I was very glad that she shared it, and that it has been heard and embraced by so many. The theme of her article, though, opened my eyes to what I value in leadership, what I see and experience as good leadership, and why Watership Down was perhaps so unusual and appealing.

If only I could find that article again! My memory of it was as a coherent and focused overview of introverted leadership, assuming that the basic message about introverts was already understood. If you find it, please send me the link!

It might have been this article in the NY Times, in which Cain quotes management guru quoted Peter Drucker: “The one and only personality trait the effective [leaders] I have encountered did have in common was something they did not have: They had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or for what it signifies.” She also name-checked Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great”, who described the best leaders as “somewhat self-effacing individuals” possessing “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”.

Here is some other stuff she might have written, or I might have just made up based on my experience of small to reasonably large organisations:

  • The best leaders are not cheer leaders and tub-thumpers with big personalities
  • The best leaders do not jump in, make hasty decisions, act before thinking
  • The best leaders do not expect everyone to conform to their own point of view, style, and approach
  • The best leaders are not be in the faces of their staff all the time, relentlessly expecting team-building
  • The best leaders are more likely to be thinking, weighing up options, considering what is best for their people, and valuing each of them as individuals
  • The best leaders are less likely to lead from the front, to take all the responsibilities and glory to themselves
  • The best leaders are more likely to draw on others’ experience and skills; to bear the burden, yes, but to listen and delegate

So back to Watership Down. In the original cohort of rabbits, there were two potential leaders: Hazel and Bigwig. Bigwig was the extravert; always ready to jump in, say his bit, and preferably cuff his subordinate; the fighter seeking glory and honour, and willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. Hazel was the introvert; younger, less experienced, reticent; willing to listen to the weaker members of the group, and value everything that others have to offer; willing to try new things, to venture into the unknown both geographically and sociologically; to strategise and problem solve, rather than confront directly; to seek peace and cooperation, rather than war and empire building, but not afraid to fight where necessary; and to sacrifice himself to protect his own.

The genius of Adams in Watership Down is that Hazel is chosen as the leader. That is probably why I found it so appealing as an introverted and shy child, and why I think it should be first on the reading list of anyone on any management and leadership programme, whether in government, military, business, or third sector.

Clare Bryden, TEDxExeter Storyteller