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Brain circuits

Do you possess the leadership qualities necessary for tough times?

Published 20 December 2022 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

The past couple of years have posed unprecedented challenges for global leaders. While it is tempting to focus on how things will be when the turmoil starts to even out, what if it doesn’t? If you took away any lessons from the disruptions of the recent past, it’s that we really have no guarantees. This is why it is critical to search for leaders that have specific qualities which are optimal for dealing with crises.

The exercise

For today’s exercise, consider each pair of “qualities”, by which I mean build in aspects of temperament-shaped experience. Ask yourself which quality you think is more important in a leader and why. Circle the one in each pair you think is more important for leadership in turbulent times:


  1. Self-confidence vs. humility


  1. Laser-focused vs. multitasking


  1. Generating excitement vs. showing restraint


  1. Ruthlessness vs. compassion


  1. Seizing the initiative vs. reacting rapidly


  1. Innovation vs. imitation


How to read your results

Was it a struggle to decide each of these pairs? Did you have an easy time deciding any? This test was a bit of a trick – because the ones, if any, that seemed easy are the ones you should take a good long look at.

Each of these pairs are polarities; while contradictory, leaders need to balance both qualities in every pair. The character traits we need to seek in leaders rest in the ability to balance opposing tensions. When you did the exercise, the answers reflect your perceptions of each of these qualities. If it seemed that in any of these pairs there was a clearly superior quality, you are probably undervaluing the one you didn’t select. Take innovation vs. imitation, for example. Innovation is the holy grail of most business strategists these days. However, successful imitation can provide you with real competitive advantages.

So, for each quality you didn’t select, spend some time considering its value and ask yourself whether you need to develop it in yourself, or look at others who clearly possess it with more appreciation. This will help you to understand the value of colleagues within your team – as well as giving you a better perspective on your own leadership.

Further reading: 

Energy, focus, and five other key skills for future leaders by Michael Watkins


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 11 other books on leadership and negotiation. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. He taught at Harvard, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, and INSEAD before joining IMD, where he directs The First 90 Days and Transition to Business Leadership programs.


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