How Do Introverts Perform as Military Officers? Hard Questions and Direct Answers 

By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor

As an Army officer who is naturally introverted when I reflect on my career from Second Lieutenant (2LT) to Lieutenant Colonel I wonder if I defied the odds, or if my personality aided me. For most of my life I believed military leaders were more likely to be extroverted. However, when I look at my peers, and up at senior leaders, I see people like me. This led me to ask questions about introverts in military leadership.

How do introverts perform as military officers?

Introverts generally perform well because traits associated with introversion lend themselves to military service like focus, reflection, and diligence. However, they may struggle more than extroverts in their early years of leadership.

The responsibilities of a Platoon Leader (PL), the typical 2LT key developmental position, requires more extroverted tendencies in daily tasks. Leading from the front during a physical training session or motivating a platoon during a live fire exercise are typically loud and direct examples of leadership, which advantage natural extroverts. However, extroverts lacking organization skills, and a detailed approach to problem-solving, will perform worse when they become senior LTs or Captains (CPTs).

As someone who rates junior officers, I assess non-extroverted attributes when they plan training events or serve as an investigating officer. These, “additional duties,” become the deciding factor in who shows leadership potential at the next rank. Since these are not usually cooperative tasks, they allow me to evaluate the individual junior leader’s ability to think critically, develop a coherent argument, and stick to a timeline. This is where introverts have an opportunity to highlight their talents.

Extroverts’ early advantage in military leadership diminish over time the longer they serve since job requirements shift from public displays of motivation to more analytical tasks. This is why perceptive senior leaders rate well-rounded LTs highest.

As an introvert are you more likely to rate introverted junior officers above extroverts?

No, I have often ranked extroverts above introverts, but the best junior officers are typically not too extreme on the personality spectrum one way or the other. The LTs or CPTs highest in extroversion were not usually number one, but still were in the top third of the organization. Instead, I often ranked the junior officers with a mix of introversion and extroversion first, then the extroverts, and lastly extreme introverts. 

When I ranked an introvert towards the bottom it was because they showed less confidence than their peers or lacked innovation. They typically got the job done but I could not expect them to perform outside their narrow comfort zone. Extreme extroverts on the other hand could conduct audacious tasks with remarkable results, but they also had the highest potential for failure when they did not accurately assess their weaknesses. Our best junior leaders understand restraint. They are bold and act in the right situations because they calculate risk to the mission and their Soldiers better than their peers.

The good news is you can overcome shortcomings as a junior officer. Personally, I was never the number one LT or CPT in the unit, but I was usually in the top three which was enough for promotion and to compete for battalion command. At times I was rated lower than my extroverted peers, but it did not have a detrimental effect on my career trajectory. Current promotion trends in the U.S. Army show that approximately 90% of all LTs will become CPTs and 70-80% will promote to Major, which should comfort introverted leaders worrying about extroverts overshadowing them.

How do subordinates influence the success of introverted and extroverted officers?

A 2011 article published in the Journal of Management Development determined extroverted managers in a pizza store chain earned higher profits when their employees were passive, but lower profits when their employees took initiative. Conversely introverted managers were more successful when their employees reported higher proactivity levels, (Grant, Gino, & Hofmann, 2011). I found this article interesting because it relates to the challenges military officers face in organizations with varying motivation levels, but I wish the study also assessed the personality type of the employees. I suspect introverted subordinates respond better to introverted leaders, and extroverted leaders are more likely to motivate extroverted followers.

As a Platoon Leader I learned to employ atypical behaviors to inspire my extroverted subordinates. My squad leaders had vastly different personalities, two were introverted while the other was an extreme extrovert. One day during a vehicle movement the extroverted squad leader made a couple of sarcastic calls on the radio. I let the first one go, but after hearing him scoff again I acted. 

Instead of waiting to discuss his perceived disrespect I stopped the convoy and went directly up to his vehicle. We had a brief discussion about how his radio calls bordered on insubordination before continuing movement. There were no further issues on the patrol and honestly our relationship improved from that point forward. My typical quiet demeanor may have made me seem apathetic, but once I showed concern and emotion the squad leader had more respect for me. The lesson for any leader is to understand how personality influences their default approach, and adjust it based on their followers’ personalities.

How many great introverts never make it to senior leadership?

This question is impossible to answer because historians do not recount unsuccessful leaders. However, the best example of an introverted leader, based on biographical accounts, who was almost passed over was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II, and architect of the allied invasion of Europe.

Unlike most of his contemporaries Eisenhower did not take part in World War I, and only held one command position before 1942, (Ambrose, 2010). His lack of combat experience hindered his career progression, and he was initially not selected to attend the Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC), which is still a crucial milestone for Army officers today, (Cox, 2010). Fortunately for Eisenhower his mentor, Major General Fox Conner, used his connections to have him transferred from the Infantry to the Adjutant General Corps so he could use one of their slots, (Cox, 2010). 

After Eisenhower graduated first in his CGSC class, Fox Conner had him transferred back to the Infantry to continue his career. Eisenhower’s performance and growing reputation then drew the attention of Army senior leaders, and ultimately landed him a job on General George C. Marshall’s staff in the War Department leading up to World War II, (Cox, 2010). Ironically, General Eisenhower, a relatively unknown officer, was placed in charge of all allied forces in Europe ahead of more well-known combat proven leaders, and introverts, like General George S. Patton.

Based on all this, is it better to be an introvert or extrovert if you want a lengthy career as a military officer?

It depends. Arguably senior military leaders are more likely to be introverts since at least the late-1990s when research revealed the most represented personality type among senior U.S. Army leaders, assessed by the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), was Introversion-Sensing-Thinking-Judging, (Gailbreath, Wagner, Moffett III, & Hein, 1997). More recently a 2020 study of Air Command Staff College students still showed introverts most represented, but instead of ISTJ as seen in 1997, Introversion-Sensing-Feeling-Judging (ISFJ) was most represented among the sample population of officers, (Newcomer & Connelly, 2020). While this information may support the role of personality in leadership there are still reservations over the efficacy of using personality tests to select military leaders.

First off, scholars have criticized the MBTI for lacking, “scientific foundation,” providing, “vague and general,” feedback, and like other popular personality assessments it relies on self-reported data, (Gerras & Wong, 2016). Secondly, the data used to compare leaders across the military is highly homogeneous since people volunteering for military service all likely want structure and order. Additionally, people whose personalities do not align with military service have already left the profession since, “those who could neither accept the incongruence nor change the environment may have already exited the organization leaving only behind those who fit,” (Gailbreath, Wagner, Moffett III, & Hein, 1997). 

It is irresponsible to claim one set of personality types better than another for military leaders especially knowing the impact that organizational culture has on behaviors and attitudes. The follow up experiment to the pizza store study showed that extroverted and introverted behaviors were malleable. Researchers influenced leader behavior by having them read a statement espousing either extroversion or introversion in leadership before taking charge of a group task (Grant, Gino, & Hofmann, 2011). Results from the trials showed that those who read the statement supporting introverted leadership were more likely to be receptive to novel ideas, which increased the group’s performance. Thus, self-awareness gained from personality tests is valuable, but more important is the knowledge that leaders can adjust their natural behaviors to improve an organization.

Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.

Works Cited

  • Ambrose, S. E. (2010). Eisenhower’s Generalship. The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters, 40(4), 90-98.
  • Cox, E. (2010, September). Grey Eminnence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship (Vol. 78W). Arlington, VA: Association of the United States Army.
  • Gailbreath, R. D., Wagner, S. L., Moffett III, R. G., & Hein, M. B. (1997). Homogenity in Behavioral Preference Among U.S. Army Leaders. Group Dynamics: Thoery, Research, and Practice, 1(3), 222-230.
  • Gerras, S. J., & Wong, L. (2016). Moving Beyond the MBTI: The Big Five and Leader Development. Military Review(March-April), 54-57.
  • Grant, A. M., Gino, F., & Hofmann, D. A. (2011). Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Productivity. Academy of Management Journal, 54(3), 528-550.
  • Newcomer, J. M., & Connelly, D. A. (2020). Personality and Leadership: The Potential Impact to Future Strategic Thinking. Air & Space Power Journal, 36-54.

Subscribe to MTI's Newsletter - BETA