Theresa May and the Perils of Introversion


When you ask people how they define introversion, the most probable reply is that an introvert is a neurotically shy person terrified of other people and at an enormous disadvantage compared with the audacious swagger of the natural extrovert. If you are familiar with the Jungian approach to personality, as exemplified for instance in the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)*, you get a very different interpretation. Introversion/Extraversion is about where and how you draw energy: needing privacy to think and reflect versus connecting with people and doing your thinking out loud. The writer Susan Cain made a good case for us Introverts in her book Quiet, celebrating the many strengths of an introverted world, for instance the ability to think in depth, to listen carefully, to make deep, loyal relationships with a few people rather than superficial ones with the many.

You can be a bold Introvert who enjoys the limelight or a shy Extravert who ducks it. You can be a successful politician or actor as an Introvert. These are preferences rather than predicting behaviours which will box you in. In the Jungian world both preferences are of equal value and both have disadvantages depending on your levels of self-awareness and maturity.

In the aftermath of the British General Election, we see very clearly how a preference for Introversion, if not very well managed, can be a fatal handicap.  As Prime Minister, Theresa May made a typical Introvert mistake. She appointed two Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, people she has known and trusted for a long time. Let’s call them Nick’N’Fi and let’s guess that their preferences are also for Introversion. All decisions, all communication, had to pass through Nick’N’Fi. Others, including senior members of her Cabinet were kept at bay.

Decisions were made mostly by consulting Nick’N’Fi, one of which was, it seems, the wildly miscalculated decision to call a General Election in the mistaken belief that a then-20 point lead meant that you would win a landslide victory. The Manifesto was written with Nick’N’Fi. Then when some parts of it provoked perfectly predictable howls of rage, the U-turn was also plotted with Nick’N’Fi.

Nick’N’Fi’s advice was to be Presidential in how the campaign was conducted so they recommended avoiding TV debates and then making carefully controlled appearances in front of tiny groups of supporters where the same pointless and now widely mocked mantra about ‘strong and stable government’ was robotically repeated. This could have been wise advice as we Introverts are not always terribly good at improv and thinking on our feet but in fact it was poor advice because it looked as if Mrs May was afraid of the kinds of questions she might get if exposed to Brenda from Bristol and other uncontrollable questioners who might challenge the way an austerity budget unfairly penalised them.

In this way, Mrs May carefully sealed off all information, including from well-meaning colleagues, that could have challenged her own views.

It’s a generalization, but let’s propose that the British electorate has some well known dislikes. It does not like the insolent sense of entitlement of wealthy people who find their way to the top of politics. It does not like being taken for granted. It does not like not being heard. When this happens, the urge to punish is overwhelming. We punished David Cameron for his casual assumption that we all wanted to stay in the EU. Now we have punished Theresa May for assuming that we all admired her for being a self-described ‘bloody difficult woman’, that her quickly dubbed ‘dementia tax’ would be seen as ‘only fair’, that a ‘Hard Brexit’ was desirable, that a tough austerity budget which would be felt most harshly by the most vulnerable was OK. Those who voted ‘Remain’ probably punished her for her own seemingly cynical and self-serving change of mind from half-hearted Remainer to Leaver, failing to understand the passionate commitment to being European that we Remainers feel.

Nick’N’Fi probably told Mrs May that none of this mattered. Inside their own little bubble of introverted certainty, it didn’t. But to the electorate it did. Interestingly, we also ignored the hysterical pleading from the right wing press which instructed us to vote for Theresa. This is despite the fact that the Leader of the main opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, is not temperamentally a leader at all but a lifelong contrarian who has not been able to command the loyalty of his own party and probably never will.

Senior British politicians rarely ask for coaching help, unlike many of their American counterparts. They are more likely to see the MBTI as a silly parlour game than as the seriously heavyweight psychometric tool that it is. So Mrs May is unlikely ever to take the questionnaire. But my own guess is that her preferences are ISTJ. At their best ISTJs are efficient respecters of tradition, loyal, serious, hard working, meticulous about detail and conscientious. Their weaknesses can be their short term thinking, their stubbornness, their dislike of change, their humourlessness, reluctance to network and their failure to understand that a system cannot ever manage the vagaries of human nature.  Each individual ISTJ will have their own place on the spectrum of effectiveness/ineffectiveness where these behaviours are concerned. Mrs May has over-relied on her own judgement and has become inflexible. Instead of strong and stable she looks weak and rigid. Now she has had to fire her Joint Chiefs of Staff as the first of the many sacrifices she needs to make to keep going in government. .

Soon we will have to have yet another election and there will be a different Tory leader. Behind the scenes I am sure that a certain well known ENTP, Boris Johnson, will be preparing his pitch. And that will be a different game again.

*My book ‘Sixteen Personality Types at Work in Organisations’ gives one page profiles of each Type. To buy, email

‘Coaching With Personality Type: What Works’ was published last week by McGraw Hill/Open University Press. Contact as above.