april 2016

by Christine McDonald

It’s after dark on a northern fire where dark comes late, and I’m exhausted from a day of winning a little in one area and losing a little in another. My legs are tucked into my sleeping bag for warmth and my headlamp shines down on my field notebook. Before I can rest, I need to make notes in preparation for my morning briefing. It’s a quick exercise to write out the objectives and assignments that I’ve already set in my mind, but this ten-minute nightly ritual is key to keeping my secret as a fireline leader: I am an introvert.

In the fire world, we teach leadership skills beginning in a firefighter’s first year and we don’t relent until they’ve perfected their morning briefings, their communication of intent, their After Action Reviews (AARs), and eventually find themselves ‘in charge’. This can mean they are in charge of a crew, in charge of a division, in charge of operations, or in charge of a multi-agency Incident Management Team (IMT). We build each level of our leadership on the same foundation, that question that every single new firefighter is asked in their first leadership class, “What makes a good leader?”

To summarize the dozen or so most common answers: “an extrovert.”

But what if we’re wrong? What if some of the best potential leaders are actually watching quietly from the back corners?

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, believes that “we tend to overestimate how outgoing leaders need to be,” and offers a host of examples of powerful leadership from the quieter 1/3 of the population, as well as some strong scientific rationale for why introverts make great leaders.

Barack Obama, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi; it’s impossible not to respect the success of these famous introverts. A random sample by the Myers-Briggs organization in 1998 found that introverts make up close to 50% of the general population. This would suggest that there are many introverts in your own organization (whether easily recognized or not) who are contributing in big, albeit quiet, ways and who could make a positive addition to your leadership ranks.

In a study of introverted vs. extroverted leadership on group dynamics, it was found that extroverts produce better results when in charge of a team of passive individuals, while introverted leaders are more effective when those they are leading are proactive initiative-takers (as many fire people are; we do fancy ourselves a type A culture, after all). Susan Cain explains, “Because of their inclination to listen to others and lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions…Introverted leaders create a virtuous circle of proactivity, in other words.” (Cain, p. 57)

To quickly dispel some common misperceptions about introverts:

  • Introversion is not shyness. Many introverts are perfectly capable in social situations and when public speaking, though they may prefer to feel well-prepared.
  • Introverts aren’t hermits. They do tend to spend more time alone than extroverts and require a certain amount of solitude to recharge after a lot of interaction.
  • Introverts aren’t passive. If they are quiet in a meeting, chances are it is because they are carefully considering everything being said and crafting a well thought out response before they speak up.

As an introvert in a career where extroversion is highly valued, I have often found myself wondering how this dominant aspect of our personalities affects the ways we do our jobs. In all of the fire-related leadership and human factors training I have done, it has never come up as an explicit topic, and yet I feel that introversion is the aspect of my personality that most strongly shapes my leadership and decision-making styles. In my quest to better understand myself, I have gathered some interesting research on how introverts and extroverts differ.

Neuroscientists have found a consistent and interesting difference in the parts of the brain that are most active in introverts and extroverts. Extroverts are more driven by their amygdala, which is the pleasure-centre of the brain. They often make decisions based on what will deliver the biggest rush of dopamine: fun social interactions, winning a bet, eating chocolate, having sex [1]. It’s easy to see how an extrovert might be drawn to the excitement of firefighting and the pride of moving up the ranks into positions of leadership. Extroverts actually experience all of these things as more pleasurable than introverts do and that’s why they’re continuously driven to seek those rewards. They tend to be more impulsive and to take more chances in doing so [2].

Introverts, on the other hand, are more sensitive to what’s going on in the neo-cortex, the part of the brain that shouts “watch out!” and “slow down!” and convinces us that following the whims of the amygdala is not always in our best interest [3]. Being less driven by the amygdala also means that introverts are better able to stay calm through both excitement and anxiety. Firefighting is not among the stereotypical career choices for an introvert, but many of us have made our place here, finding our own ways of balancing the thrills and risks of the job and of managing the complex interpersonal communications it entails.

A simple psychology experiment shows how this difference impacts the way introverts and extroverts react to negative feedback or getting something wrong. The experiment goes like this: You get a button to hold in your hand as you watch a series of numbers flash on the screen. Some of the numbers are good and win you points and some are bad and lose you points, but you have to figure out which are which through trial and error and eventually push the button only for the good numbers. It doesn’t take too long to figure out that the number 2 is good and the number 9 is bad. Except that sometimes, both introverts and extroverts will still push the number 9 by mistake. What is interesting is what happens next. When the introvert realizes that they got it wrong, they actually slow down in their next few clicks until they are back on track. Extroverts speed up their clicking and end up making more mistakes. They take more chances in their effort to win and enjoy the reward [4].

It’s not hard to imagine the consequences these different reactions could have in the real world of fire suppression, where we are constantly forced to make predictions, act on them, and then adjust and adapt when we don’t get it right. In the face of an unexpected event, an introverted IC will naturally slow down and reflect on what went wrong before making his/her next move. The extrovert may charge ahead in search of success, without considering the lessons of a failure.

I work just down the hall from one of the British Columbia Wildfire Service’s (BCWS’s) most experienced and well-respected incident commanders, himself with very introverted tendencies. We have had many conversations about good fireline leadership, and he gets most fervent about one point: A good leader knows better than to repeat a failed tactic. Not only is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity but, in the fire arena, it also risks safety with little chance of a successful outcome. In light of what we know about the natural reactions of introverts and extroverts when faced with a failure, we might be best served by the leader who takes a short walk or closes the door for a moment of privacy before pushing the button again.

Of course, extraversion and introversion exist at two ends of a spectrum along which we all fall. Many extroverts have worked to master their dopamine-driven responses and have devised strategies to make them slow down and think before reacting. And many introverts have pushed themselves to speak up more frequently and with more confidence. None of us is bound to one extreme or the other, but where we fall on this spectrum is nevertheless one of the most defining aspects of our personalities.

Introverts are easily overlooked. Our culture has preconditioned us to see someone who speaks quickly and with confidence as more intelligent than someone less assuming, but this is simply not the case [5]. Introverts do not often seek the thrill of the spotlight and tend to find more subtle ways of making their ideas and opinions heard. They are the quiet, thoughtful ones planting seeds in the minds of their extroverted workmates, asking “what if?” and “have you considered this?”

When introverts are given the opportunity to lead, they may take on the responsibility with some reluctance yet they are the ones who will take the time to assimilate all of the available information, who will ask for input and listen intently when it is given, and who will pause to reflect after something goes awry before adjusting the plan. They are leaders who will empower and get the most out of their subordinates. They just might be leaders who could make firefighting safer.



[1] Richard Depue and Paul Collins, “Neurobiology of the Structure of Personality: Dopamine, Facilitation of Incentive Motivation, and Extraversion,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22, no. 3 (1999); 491-569

[2] Daniel Nettle, Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007

?[3] John Brebner and Chris Cooper, “Stimulus or Response-Induced Excitation: A Comparison of the Behavior of Introverts and Extroverts,” Journal of Research in Personality12, no. 3 (1978): 306-11

?[4] C.M. Patterson and Joseph Newman, “Reflectivity and Learning from Aversive Events: Toward a Psychological Mechanism for the Syndromes of Disinhibition,” Psychological Review 100 (1993): 716-36.

?[5] D.H. Saklofske and D.D. Kostura, “Extraversion-Introversion and Intelligence,” Personality and Individual Differences 11, no. 6 (1990): 547-51


Christine McDonald


Christine McDonald has worked in various operational roles with the BC Wildfire Service since 2000 and have been involved in the development and delivery of leadership and human factors training for the BCWS for the past 5 years. As a classic introvert with an academic bend, she enjoys reading on the topic of psychology, personality and group dynamics and tries to always incorporate current research into her training deliveries, as well as use it to shape her personal development as a leader on the fireline.