Do introverted CIOs face particular leadership challenges?

The majority of CIOs are introverts… but does this cause problems?

A few years back John Brandon, contributing editor at Inc. magazine, wrote an absolutely fascinating piece entitled: “Confessions From an Introverted Leader”. In this he analyzed the impact his introverted personality – INFP according to the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator [MBTI] – had on his leadership abilities.

“I remember having many intense conversations with employees when I worked at my first startup,” he wrote. “One of them was so upset with me when I called her into my office that she dumped her work onto my floor. In a few cases, especially when it came to firing people, I dreaded confrontations so much that I'd re-schedule meetings multiple times.

“In some ways, this was all related to my own immaturity,” he continued. “Yet, looking back, I can see that my reactions also showed empathy. The fact that I dreaded those tense meetings meant I cared about the employee. While I probably should have won the award for the Worst Boss of the Week many times, I also did plenty of one-on-one mentoring. Often, my style was to lead by example, not commandment--and that actually seems to work in a small company.”

What personality traits has Myers-Briggs publisher, CPP identified amongst and how does the typical CIO’s personality differ from the rest of the IT department? Find out: Do you have the personality of a CIO?


What is the MBTI Indicator?

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, is based on Jung, currently used by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies and is probably the most ubiquitous personality test out there. It has also proved so ludicrously popular that a range of t-shirts, mugs and other memorabilia are available to interested parties.

The flip side of course, is it has received a lot of criticism (excellent PDF from 1992). This has ranged from the way it is used by businesses to hire and pigeonhole people, through to skepticism on the scientific validity of the test itself. One of the chief censures levelled at it is that many of those profiled emerge a different ‘type’ the second time they take the test.

For those not au fait: MBTI is based on four scales. These (loosely) cover: how you interact with the world (Introversion/Extroversion); how you take in information (Sensing/Intuition); how you make decisions (Thinking/Feeling); and how you organize yourself (Judging/Perceiving).

This makes a certain amount of sense if you study the underlying idea. But part of the problem with the test (especially simple online versions) is that multiple choice questions often give rise to a range of silly, erroneous conclusions. For example: “Do you feel involved when watching TV soaps?” might indicate more of a propensity towards liking rubbish television, than any innate tendency to sympathize with fellow human beings.

If anyone is seriously interested, books like Do What You Are provide numerous practical examples of each of the four areas and help readers to analyze themselves on a sliding scale. This is still not entirely foolproof but makes considerably more sense than the tick box approach. It also serves to highlight the point that any personality test is probably more relevant as an internal measure than an external monitor. However you view it though, some of the four functions are far harder to pinpoint than others… and some have been more widely discredited.

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Introverted tech leaders: Is it all ISTJ vs. INTJ?

The most respected part of the MBTI test is the Introversion/Extroversion element. This looks at how you react to the world and whether you tend to be drained by human company or thrive on it. Naturally there are scales of introversion, and whilst few sit at either end, most have some kind of preference.

Are the stereotypes about IT professionals are really true? Check out: Are all IT professionals introverts?

You may not be a raging introvert, for example, whose natural inclination is to run a mile from a group of people in order to hide in a cupboard. But you may find yourself more easily tired by too much company and feel the need for some alone time to recuperative.   

Yet both ends of the spectrum do have some implications on leadership. Interesting research from Professor Joe Peppard at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin found that 85% of CIOs are introverts (although this doesn’t factor in scale) and 70% fall into the Myers Briggs personality type ISTJ.

To put it bluntly ISTJ translates to the classic “geek” image of a highly analytical individual with poor people skills; and breaks down to ‘I’ for Introversion over Extroversion, ‘S’ for Sensing over Intuiting – which relates to more literal methods of acquiring information – ‘T’ for Thinking over Feeling – which suggests a more analytical approach to decision making – and ‘J’ for Judging over Perceiving – which indicates a preference towards processes and time keeping.

Peppard told Computerworld that these individuals can be great at their jobs but are not necessarily equipped for leadership. “ISTJs have a strong sense of responsibility and great loyalty to the organizations and relationships in their lives. They rely upon knowledge and experience to guide them and pay attention to immediate and practical organizational needs. Generally preferring to work alone, they can be relied upon to fulfil commitments as stated and on time.”

He continued: “They would be described as practical, pragmatic and sensible, but could also be seen as detached, inflexible and overly serious. They strive for perfection and can be poor at delegation. They have a tendency to get bogged down in the detail and failing to see the ‘wood from the trees’.”

Interestingly, whilst researching this article on introvert IT leaders, all those who stepped forward to comment were profiled as INTJs. Shawn Eadens, a Senior Management Consultant, believes that the N over S has stood him in good stead over the years. “Personally, I have been able to achieve results that ISTJs have not because of utilizing a keen sense of being intuitive versus sensing. This means knowing instead of just sensing. Knowing is more internal and sensing is more external when it comes to decision-making. I have also found that knowing is much more accurate than sensing or feeling which is more inaccurate based on an individual’s emotional state.”

“Being an INTJ in an IT leadership position has been beneficial,” says John Perry, a Senior Server Engineer and IT Architect at City of Mesa, Arizona. “This is due to the fact that we are pre-wired to create efficient organizations and systems just by our very nature.”

Whilst Paul Aydelott, who has an IT career spanning 30 years and is owner of eZ Info Management, also believes his INTJ personality has been an “asset”.

“I was one of four people (plus a host of contractors) selected to create a software development team for 3,000 offices distributed across the USA,” he says. “Given that we and our agency were especially naive about the nature of the positions, I think my particular insights were invaluable for our survival.

“I have had people express surprise that I am very introverted because I am an effective public speaker and group facilitator.”


Poor perceptions of introverts

In research IDG Connect conducted, we noticed a marked preference towards introversion amongst our global IT audience – although we didn’t ask their MBTI type. Out of 465 people, 53% described themselves as introverts, 24% as ambiverts, 20% as extroverts (far lower than many other industries), whilst 3% didn’t know. There was also a clear personal preference towards introverts amongst the introvert community, possibly because it has tended to be undervalued.

Eadens agrees with this point: “There is a big difference between perception and performance for introverts in the workplace and society in general. The introvert is significantly undervalued and underappreciated for their multi-faceted contributions.”

Whilst Perry adds: “We don't market ourselves well. [Although] if we are accomplished in what we do, our ideas, products or others sell us.”

This issue of perception seemed to play out even further in our survey, which showed that 49% of introverts profiled believe that introverts are better suited to a career in IT. Whilst only 24% of ambiverts and 22% if extroverts thought introverts were better suited. Obviously, there are a range of skills sets involved in any tech career, but this does suggest a quiet confidence for introverts amongst other introverts, which is not shared by wider society.

“Many decisions are made in the world based on the appearance, exterior, or the personality of extroverts,” says Eadens. “In my experience, introverts have been highly productive and results-oriented but may need improvements in relationship building. I have been very successful in leadership roles over the last 30 years in Business, Ministry, and Sports, but have commonly been misunderstood due to erroneous perceptions that are accepted as social norms.”  

In the end though, the problem for many introverts may come down to the fact that they tend to be very private people. This is never going to be as easy for others to cope with as ‘an open book’. “If you do experience our feelings,” says Perry [in specific reference to his INTJ personality], “it is only because we have experienced something extremely profound or someone has really ticked us off by being insanely stupid. We set our own internal standards and don't need recognition for our egos.”

Aydelott concludes: “There are many kinds of leadership,” and ultimately it all comes down to balance. “Different approaches apply at different points in the lifecycle of an organization. There is no one personality style that works best, but a style that recognizes and uses the best of all styles makes the best leader.”