In a world that glorifies extroverts, let’s hear it for the quiet man

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama. Photograph: Getty Images

A recent New Yorker profile of Barack Obama set out to explain why he has struggled to win the support of super-rich Democrat donors. Obama emerges as polite but cool. “He’s more of an introspective guy than either Bill Clinton or George Bush,” said one Chicago donor.

The profile focused on the impact of Obama’s reserved personality on fund-raising. But there is a deeper point: the electorate, too, senses Obama’s coolness. David Maraniss, Obama’s most recent biographer, thinks the president possesses “a writer’s sensibility, where he is both participating and observing himself participating, and views much of the political process as ridiculous or surreal, even as he is deep into it. I think donors can sense this ambivalence.” So can the public.

Obama shot to political pre-eminence on soaring rhetoric and charismatic appeal. But his journey to the top left him with a double-edged legacy. Not only has he been hamstrung by inflated expectations, he has also been placed in the wrong box. He is not a feel-good factor politician. He is measured, considered and sceptical. Four years after “Yes We Can”, Obama faces a question that would once have seemed ridiculous: is he too introverted for modern political tastes?

The Clinton card

At the recent Democratic convention, Bill Clinton received rave reviews, whereas Obama’s speech was judged to be functional. It was revealing to see the two men react to applause before their speeches. Beneath the handsome smile, Obama looked slightly uneasy, even embarrassed. Clinton radiated requited love. Isn’t that a vital part of the politician’s craft? Perhaps. But we should not mistake the ability to work a crowd with the business of good government.

High office squeezes two contradictory roles into one job. A president is the face of his administration as well as its ultimate decision-maker, he is both the PR frontman and the chief executive. But the balance has shifted towards the former. A modern politician has to be so constantly available – and relentlessly sociable and upbeat – that he has little time or energy left for the substantive parts of the job. Ironically, the way the job has evolved does not suit Obama’s temperament. A friend who works for him told me that he is excellent company but rarely longs to be in a crowd. The president who became synonymous with a new way of doing things is quite old-fashioned in one crucial respect: he likes to keep himself to himself.

The criticism that Obama is aloof says much about what we demand from leaders. The extrovert is the dominant ideal. Politicians have to be constantly available and communicative. Above all, they have to appear to be relishing the media marathon. Paradoxically, being socially and emotionally secure can become a handicap: neediness, the constant desire to be liked, makes for good television.

Business has evolved a similar obsession with ultra-sociability. The walls of offices have been ripped up, replaced by open-plan rooms designed for “brain-storming” and “hot-desking”. If the plan is to make introverts extinct, the modern office could not be better designed. Everyone must live cheerfully in each other’s pockets. The few walls remaining in today’s offices are often made of glass so that the workaholic masses can observe their bosses hard at work. Those who arrive at decisions by closing the blinds and figuring out what they think are rarely accounted for.

Business leaders are trained to erase introvert tendencies. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain describes Harvard Business School as the “Spiritual Capital of Extroversion”. One graduate describes the culture of sociality at HBS as bordering on pathological: “Socializing here is an extreme sport. If you don’t go out one night, the next day people will ask, ‘Where were you?’ I go out at night like it’s my day job.”

Traditionally extrovert spheres, such as sport, have become still more so. The alpha-male extroverts Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen were both picked as England captains (despite their lack of experience) before the England and Wales Cricket Board finally turned to the measured, controlled Andrew Strauss. Initially, Strauss faced criticism for “not being a natural captain”. In other words, he was not the last man standing at the bar, nor the biggest voice in the dressing room. He concentrated instead on making good decisions.

Heath legend

The extrovert has not always exerted such a grip on our perception of leadership. Clement Attlee was reserved (especially with the press) but he got a lot done. A former cabinet minister told me last week that it used to be far easier for politicians to be naturally withdrawn. He recalled having dinner at the Conservative association of Ted Heath’s constituency. Before the meal, the organiser took the minister to one side. “By the way, don’t feel you have to talk to the people sitting next to you.” It was implied that Heath often ignored his dinner companions. The story was not told to celebrate Heath’s taciturn character but it is hard to imagine any such allowances being made for an introvert today.

Carl Jung, who popularised the word, described introverts as people who focus on the meaning of events rather than the social surface. They tend to work in a more considered way. We may need those qualities now more than ever. The incentive structure of democracy has been revealed as problematic: too many promises, too lightly made. Governments must restore trust in the democratic process just as they are trying to navigate a path through a debt crisis. To succeed, they will need more than charismatic cheerleaders who have mastered the art of instant gratification. These serious times demand politicians who are prepared to risk short-term unpopularity for the long-term good.

Obama has the moral and intellectual qualities to make a reasoned case for what needs to be done. But it demands considerable political skill to adapt the feel-good “Yes We Can” into the sober injunction “Sorry, we must” – and still win elections.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)