The First Female U.S. Army General to Lead Troops in Combat is an Introvert — Why Am I Not Surprised?


 The First Female U.S. Army General to Lead Troops in Combat is an Introvert    Why Am I Not Surprised?

Charles Darwin once wrote: “A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers, but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. He may be as bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers.”

Darwin might have been talking about Brigadier General Heidi Brown, who is the only woman in the Army ever to command an armed brigade in combat.

Besides being female, General Brown has three other qualities that we don’t usually associate with top brass, according to an interview she gave last week to NPR reporter Rachel Martin.

One, she’s self-deprecating: “It still feels surreal to be called ‘General,’ she told Martin: “you just hope no one says, wait a minute, we made a big mistake.”

Two: she’s tender-hearted. Originally she wanted to be a veterinarian, until a puppy died in her arms and she thought, I can’t do this.

And three, she’s shy, says Martin.

Here’s General Brown: “I’m an introvert by nature. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re not…You don’t come across as being an introvert at all.’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s because every day I put on my Wonder Woman outfit, and you have to be able to do everything and anything. And so that’s the person you portray when you’re in uniform.”

In fact, the majority of Army personnel — including at the highest ranks of colonels and generals — are introverts, according to Stephen Gerras, a Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College, whom I had the chance to interview for my book. They tend to be a particular kind of introvert — an “ISTJ,” in the parlance of the Myers-Briggs personality test (please go here for more information on Myers-Briggs, and to find out your own personality type). Gerras’ estimate was  off-the-cuff, but this study of personnel at a U.S. Air Force base echoes his observations.

At first I was stunned by these statistics, but here are some of the characteristics of an ISTJ, according to one description:

Perhaps no type is more driven by a sense of responsibility and “bottom-line” behavior than [ISTJ's]. In the name of responsibility, these Introverts have acquired social grace, ease with words, and all of the appropriate interpersonal social skills demanded at any given moment. They can be so outgoing under clearly defined circumstances that they are sometimes mistaken for Extraverts. But make no mistake: as the most private of the sixteen types, these Introverts can don Extraverted clothing when the occasion warrants it without changing their essentially Introverted inner nature. [Susan here: This uncannily echoes General Heidi Brown's observation that she's putting on a Wonder Woman outfit every morning!]

... ISTJs focus inwardly, concentrating on data that are objective, immediate, concrete, and pragmatic. …To some observers, these seem to be your classic Type A personalities — driven, impatient, and obsessive….[T]hey often excel at school and work, rising to senior positions of responsibility as class presidents, school heroes, project managers, and community leaders — all of which may seem out of character for an Introvert. But for the ISTJs, this is not out of character at all; they are simply doing their duty — “doing what should be done…”

But this is not only about ISTJs. Many effective introverts, in many fields, harness the strengths of inward focus and powers of concentration. When faced with tedious or thorny problems, studies show, introverts favor accuracy over speed. They are focused and diligent. Extroverts, in contrast, make increasing numbers of mistakes as they go, and abandon ship faster. (These studies involve tests of cognitive problem-solving abilities, not combat-readiness, but the psychological orientation they reveal should apply in other situations, at least to some extent.)

Also, many introverts can relate to the sensation of wearing that Wonder Woman outfit for the sake of a higher goal. Have you ever noticed how uninhibited people are at costume parties, when they greet people from behind a mask? This is part of the reason people have costume parties; to dress as a fireman or as a queen is to temporarily become one.  When I was a corporate lawyer, the very act of donning a suit and high heels felt transformative. Imagine what an Army uniform must be like!

I keep thinking of Jack Nicholson’s famous speech from the movie “A Few Good Men,” about how citizens depend on their armies: “You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!”

It’s fascinating to think that the people on the wall are mostly introverts.

How about you? Does this surprise you? Do you think we tend to equate extroversion with bravery and valor, and if so, why do we do this?

(But before you answer, I’m going to ask you a favor. Could you please hold politics to the side as you think about and comment on these questions? The only political agenda this blog has is to advance the cause of introversion, and I think we can do that best if we hold other political variables constant.  THANK YOU!)

*And, many thanks to Steve Cain for alerting me to the NPR story on Heidi Brown.

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  1. Susan on 02.03.2011 at 17:38 (Reply)

    Wow — great post! I have never been so happy and proud to be an ISTJ. I had no idea I was in such exalted company!

  2. Janet Dickens on 02.03.2011 at 17:40 (Reply)

    This is a fascinating point. Being an introvert myself, though I frequently tested out as an ENFJ on Myers-Briggs for some reason (I can assure you that I am an introvert), I can definitely believe this.

    I kind of associate extroverts with doers and introverts with thinkers, but introverts may tend to stand behind, and get involved with, things that strengthen them and use their abilities to their best advantage.

    But, that’s not all there is to it. There’s structure and a sense purpose and definition in the military. I’d be willing to bet that politicians (our policy leaders versus our military leaders) — not getting into politics, but speaking about a group of leaders who have to mix with people and find out what the thinking is and set the goals and talk the rest of the people into supporting the new goals, and then argue the goals with one another in our government in order to enact change — politicians almost have to be extroverts. Military leaders have well-defined goals and a well-structured means of carrying out those goals; there’s no negotiation involved.

    Now, before anyone comes after me for taking a stand that extroverts aren’t also thinkers or that introverts aren’t also doers, let me say that I think there’s brilliance of both kinds in both camps. The introvert/extrovert tendencies facilitate the chosen expertise.

    I transcribe U.S. Senate hearings and can attest to the kind of brilliant advanced thinking that has to be present for the kind of advanced read-the-people/define-the-rules/convince-the-people doing that Senators do. My father retired years ago as second highest in command for the Coast Guard, and I can attest to the kind of advanced thinking that goes hand in hand with the kind of read-the-situation/implement-the-rules/lead-the-people doing that he did. Servicemen and -women in the ranks of our Armed Forces are in the same boat, so to speak; they are operating within the kind of structure and direction that works best for the way they brilliantly think. Totally different focuses, totally different skills.

    Thanks for this article, Susan. Love your thoughtful content!


  3. Timaree (freebird) on 02.03.2011 at 17:41 (Reply)

    I’ve not thought about this in any way. My family has fought in all the wars I think since the revolution and it’s never ocurred to me that some of them may well have been introverts. In fact now that I think of it, my father was most assuredly an introvert and he fought in WWII and finally retired from the military. The military needs all kinds of people really even if they sound like they only want order-following people. There is a lot that goes on with schools, engineering, running whole bases which would be like running cities. Everyone pretty much can fit somewhere in the military.

  4. Trudy on 02.03.2011 at 17:46 (Reply)

    This is genuinely inspiring. Great post. Go INTROVERTS! I’m an INTJ not ISTJ but I am so thrilled to read something like this. Honestly, I always associated the Armed Forces with extroversion, but I do have an older sister who is an introvert and has been in the US Navy for 17 years.

    I think more introverts, especially women should read stories like these. Just great.

  5. Susan on 03.03.2011 at 11:38 (Reply)

    I love this kind of balanced, yin-yang thinking from Janet:

    “Now, before anyone comes after me for taking a stand that extroverts aren’t also thinkers or that introverts aren’t also doers, let me say that I think there’s brilliance of both kinds in both camps. The introvert/extrovert tendencies facilitate the chosen expertise.”

  6. Jennifer Kahnweiler on 04.03.2011 at 00:23 (Reply)

    Have been loving your posts, Susan. Great analysis of the military ISTJ profile also. We need the calm, thoughtful reflection of introverted leaders in all our organizations.

  7. Dave on 04.03.2011 at 15:42 (Reply)

    Back in college, I became interested in Myers-Briggs personality typing and read a book by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates entitled, “Please Understand Me.” I had not thought about it for years. I just pulled it off my bookshelf and looked at the personality test inside that I took nearly 20 years ago. I fell (and still fall) squarely in the ISTJ category. I love this blog. It is the single biggest boost to my ego that I have found in a long time.

    1. Susan on 04.03.2011 at 15:52 (Reply)

      Thx for your comment, Dave, and I’m so happy you found the blog! I also want to mention a book called “Do What You Are,” which changed my life. It uses Myers-Briggs typing to help with career choice. I came across this book back when I was a corporate lawyer, and upon reading it INSTANTLY understood why law did not work for me, and what might. Many of my academic research-psychologist friends do not approve of Myers-Briggs, but I think it’s an incredibly illuminating thing.

  8. Dave on 04.03.2011 at 15:59 (Reply)

    Thanks for the tip. I am an appellate lawyer, and while it is a better fit for me than trial practice, it’s still not a great fit. I’ll check out the book.

  9. Susan on 04.03.2011 at 16:07 (Reply)

    If you have any epiphanies as a result of reading the book, I would love to hear!

  10. Concerned Citizen on 07.04.2011 at 17:21 (Reply)

    Does anyone care that she is a walking cluster****. She got an entire Company wiped out because she blew off the meeting where the change of route was discussed. I am sure her version was much more heroic. And being in Iraq at the same time, I know that she did not learn from her mistakes. She would ask for escorts to guard her, then leave before they arrived because she felt like it. The hell with the fact that the escorts travelled 6 hours at night through hostile terittory to get there. I guess it was time to leave after breakfast She is more concerned with her title than executing her title. And the ADA community is more concerned with being politically correct instead of rewarding and promoting solid leaders. If any male officer (regardless of rank or position) had pulled the crap Heidi Brown did, they would not only be out of the Army, but they would be incarcerated. As for being coded out, maybe everyone should look up a General Dunwitty. As I understand it, she earned her rank, and did not wait to get promoted because she was a female.

    1. Rocky on 24.06.2013 at 10:46 (Reply)

      I’m interested, since no one else brought this up. Only positive comments on Linked in too. Can you give me a little more information or references. I don’t know her, but I get a feeling there is too much (acclaim) attention drawn to this. ADA is not known to “close with and destroy” especially at the BN level.

  11. Robert Leonard on 16.06.2013 at 15:25 (Reply)

    I, too, tested out as an ISTJ on the Meyers-Briggs personality test which I first took in graduate school after retirement from the Army. While I did not rise to the same lofty heights as General Brown, I think I had a fairly successful career. I found that my personality/leadership style lent itself to slowing down the action in order to make considered decisions and thus avoiding rash or hasty actions as some of my more extroverted brothers in the cavalry would often recommend. This slower deliberation could and did lead to some contentious moments but I think it ultimately led to smarter decisions.

  12. L. Thompson on 20.06.2013 at 11:30 (Reply)

    I haver two things to comment on - First, I am an ISTJ and used Myers-Briggs during my first meeting with my subordinate commanders to establish the path forward for my new command and to get to know the commanders I was dealing with. I also hired Otto Kroeger, the author of “Type Talk” to facilitate this meeting. It turned out o be an awesome meeting with great results. It was also an eye-openers as to how each type approached goals and objectives and developed a solution for the path forward for our unit.
    The second is I worked with Heidi Brown during her tour in Iraq and it was a delight. She was thoughtful and visionary in her approach.

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