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Myths of Personality and Leadership

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Our lives are profoundly shaped by personality. It is the driving force behind our habits, social interactions, and inner psychology. Merriam-Webster defines personality as “the complex characteristics that distinguishes an individual or a nation or a group; especially: the totality of an individual’s behavioral and emotional characteristics.”

Personality defines us emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. Personality is “reflected in our brain pathways, neurotransmitters, and remote corners of our nervous system.” 1 In her book Quiet, Susan Cain writes “Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality—the ‘north and south of temperament,’ as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.” 2 Unfortunately, despite being one of the most researched topics in personality psychology, misconceptions about introverts and extroverts abound.

A Brief History of Personality Types: “Introvert” and “Extrovert”

Even though these terms are relatively new additions to the psychology scene, the contrasts between a “man of action” and a “man of contemplation” have been around since ancient times. 3 In Genesis, the biblical writer notes the differences between the twins Jacob and Esau. Esau was “a skillful hunter, a man of the field,” while Jacob was “a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27). Later, Jacob is renamed “Israel” which conveys the notion of wrestling inwardly with God. At the burning bush, Moses points out his own quiet nature and pleads with God to send someone else to confront Pharaoh (Exodus 4:10-19).

The ancient Greeks believed personality was the result of the four “bodily fluids.” Each fluid (or “humor”) was connected to emotional traits (as well as the four elements, seasons, and internal organs). 4 Excessive personality traits were thought to be an imbalance of these fluids. Believe it or not, this system of medicine wasn’t fully debunked until 1858!

Other writers and philosophers noted differences between “doers” and “thinkers”. But in 1921 psychologist Carl Jung forever changed the study of personality with the terms “introvert” and “extrovert”. Jung theorized that we fall into one of two categories. Some individuals focus on the internal world, while others focus on the outside world. 5 Jung redefined personality psychology and inspired many subsequent theories (including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). Today “introversion and extroversion are two of the most exhaustively researched subjects in personality psychology, arousing the curiosity of hundreds of scientists.” 6 While introversion and extroversion do not describe the entirety of personality psychology, these terms are easily understood by the vast majority of people and have a strong cultural presence. 7 Perhaps it is because of their popularity that these terms have given rise to such persistent misconceptions.

Myth: Introvert/Extrovert is a Two-Way Switch

Most people think this aspect of personality is an all or nothing switch. If you’re not a quiet introvert, than you must be a boisterous extrovert. Occupying the middle ground isn’t usually listed as an option. Thankfully, this perception is beginning to change. Those that have an equal share of both qualities have earned their own moniker: ambivert. 8

In reality, the majority of us are a mix of introvert/extrovert tendencies. Some may fall closer to one end of the spectrum or the other. It’s rare to have an individual who is 100 percent introverted or extroverted. Carl Jung, the father of  analytical psychology himself, famously declared this an impossibility: “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.” 9

The complicated nature of personality and its contributing factors means that we are each an amalgamation of unique traits and experiences. Limiting ourselves by thinking only in terms of “introvert” and “extrovert” means we risk missing out on the complexity of human existence. We must learn to recognize where definitions end and where individual uniqueness begins.

Myth: All Introverts are Quiet and All Extroverts are Loud

You probably already have some ideas about the characteristics of an introvert or extrovert. Generally speaking, extroverts are those that draw energy from outside stimuli. They feel energized and recharged after social events and find that their motivation can decline with inactivity. Extroverts are most often described as energetic, outgoing, friendly, and talkative.

Conversely, introverts are more sensitive to external stimuli and will often seek time alone to recharge. They find social events draining and are most productive when working alone. Introverts are most often described as quiet, thoughtful, and reserved.

Unfortunately, while these traits can be useful in describing personality in a general sense, they have also given rise to negative stereotypes. As Cain discusses in her book, introverts are often perceived as shy “hermits” and “misanthropes.” 10 While there aren’t as many negative stereotypes related to extroverts, they have been described (mostly by introverts) as loud, overbearing, and prone to “98-percent-content-free-talk.” 11

Most stereotypes begin with a few grains of truth. There are people that embody every single introverted trait (like me 12). But most often this person is the exception rather than the rule. Assuming that every extrovert we meet is a crowd-pleasing spotlight-dweller is a disservice to them and to ourselves. Extroverts are capable of being thoughtful and bookish. Introverts often enjoy social gatherings and stimulating conversation.

Myth: My Personality Traits Define My Abilities

Many people believe that their personality traits lock them into certain modes of behavior. For instance, most introverts dislike public speaking. Many (including myself) take this general dislike and transform it into “I don’t enjoy public speaking; therefore, I must not be good at it.” Whether this avoidance is fueled by fear or a general ambivalence, there is no logical process that dictates disliking an activity is equivalent to an immediate lack of talent. Susan Cain, an introvert herself, admits that while she may not like public speaking, it has enabled her to extend her influence significantly. Her TED talk alone has over 20 million views.

Additionally, there is also some research to suggest that thinking of yourself as an introvert (or extrovert) can cause you to exhibit those particular qualities. How we perceive ourselves has a tremendous effect on our behavior. For this reason, some experts have suggested that the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” have become “self-limiting beliefs.” 13

Developing skills that align with our personality traits can help ensure we find joy and satisfaction in our work (and hobbies). But, those same traits and habits can also build up a luxurious comfort zone that we may be reluctant to leave. Embrace your personality and all it’s quirks, but don’t allow a personality type to limit your potential for growth.

Myth: Only One Personality Type is Suitable for Leadership

This myth is perhaps the most prevalent of all. Our culture is biased when it comes to personality. Extroverts tend to dominate public life. They are over-represented in politics, in business, and on social media. Being “outgoing” is considered normal—a mark of happiness and confidence. Because they love social settings and are often comfortable in the spotlight, extroverts are seen as natural leaders. Introverts, with their quiet, thoughtful ways, are less likely to be considered as leadership material. What’s more, there’s an unfortunate negative stigma concerning introverts and leadership. An astounding 96 percent of leaders and managers report being extroverted. In a poll, 65 percent of senior executives said it was a “liability” for leaders to be introverted, and a meager 6 percent saw “introversion as an advantage.” 14 We have been conditioned to believe the myth that only extroverts make good leaders.

Introvert, extrovert, or ambivert - you're called to lead others into alignment w/God's Kingdom. - Mary Meadows Click To Tweet

But here’s the awesome reality—everyone who has accepted Christ is a leader. Whether introvert, extrovert, or ambivert, you are called to lead your circles of influence into alignment with the Kingdom of God. Christ doesn’t require a specific personality type. He will work through you, using your traits, your talents, and unique circumstances to bring about healing and restoration.

Christ doesn't require a specific personality type. He will work through you. - Mary Meadows Click To Tweet

Besides the reality of Christ’s transformative work, there’s ample evidence to suggest that introverts make excellent leaders. Although quiet and thoughtful, introverts are more likely to invest in their followers, to implement their suggestions, and motivate them to be more proactive. 15 While an extrovert may have the enthusiasm to get the best out of passive followers, their assertiveness may actually discourage innovation from those below.

Personality and Leadership

Personalities have a tremendous impact on our lives. They shape the way we think and how we interact with the world. They make us unique, yet they also serve as the platform through which we connect with other human beings. If we are to truly embrace our call to leadership and influence the world for Christ and His Kingdom, it is vital that we have an accurate understanding of how our personalities shape us and our interactions with the world.


 

Next week, we’ll explore the concept of introverted leadership, but until then here are some resources you may be interested in:

 

Disclaimer: This article is an editorial and represents the views and opinions of its author. It does not serve as an 'official' statement of the views of Artios Magazine or its sponsors.

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Notes:

  1. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (New York, NY: Broadway Books. 2012), 3.
  2. Cain, 2.
  3. Cain, 270.
  4. Matthew Smith, “Balancing your Humors: Does classical Greek medicine provide any insights today about mental health?” Psychology Today, November 2, 2013, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/short-history-mental-health/201311/balancing-your-humors
  5. https://www.16personalities.com/articles/our-theory
  6. Cain, 3.
  7. Susan Cain explores this cultural presence in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
  8. Some estimates say that up to 38 percent of people are ambiverts!
  9. Cain, 14.
  10. Cain, 11-12.
  11. Jonathan Rauch, “Caring for Your Introvert: the Habits and Needs of a Little-understood Group,” The Atlantic, March 2003, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/caring-for-your-introvert/302696/.
  12. Thanks to the stabilizing influence of amiable friends and family I’ve managed to avoid Carl Jung’s prediction of a lunatic asylum
  13. Caroline Beaton, “The Majority of People Are Not Introverts or Extroverts,” Psychology Today, October 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-gen-y-guide/201710/the-majority-people-are-not-introverts-or-extroverts
  14. Adam Grant, “5 Myths About Introverts and Extroverts,” The Quiet Revolution, n.d., https://www.quietrev.com/5-myths-about-introverts-and-extroverts/
  15. Cain, 57.

About Mary Meadows

Mary Meadows
As an unashamed bibliophile and word enthusiast, it’s rare to see Mary without a book in her hand. When she’s not exploring dusty library shelves, you can find her enjoying the capricious Michigan weather with her faithful German Shepherd, Dakota.