Will leaders with certain qualities rise to the occasion of the Coronavirus pandemic while others stumble or even fall? Learn more from Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of 10 books and 150+ scientific papers on the psychology of talent, leadership, innovation, and AI.

Although there are many examples, most notably Winston Churchill, highlighting the importance of specific situational circumstances in determining the particular attributes leaders need to be effective, the essence of good leadership is universal. This is why it is not easy to conceive of a situation in which people would be better off having leaders with less technical expertise, less intelligence, less people skills, and less integrity.

That said, it is obviously true that in certain circumstances, such as when times are good, we may be more forgiving of leaders who lack some of those central ingredients of leadership talent. After all, even if leaders are not terribly competent, smart, streetwise, and honest, they would need to be extraordinarily destructive – and, in a toxic sense, pretty effective – to have a strong short-term impact on the status quo. While this does occasionally happen, it is usually a succession of mediocre or incompetent leaders who are needed to undo the legacy of their successive predecessors. In political leadership, for instance, even the most ruthless and incompetent dictators cannot achieve this with one or two terms in office, which is why they end up changing the constitution.

photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor and author of 10 books and over 150 scientific papers on the psychology of talent, leadership, innovation, and AI.

Dictators, and more generally, charismatic leaders who cultivate a personality cult, often start as inspirational and prosocial figures who are quite benevolent in their intentions and actions, only to end in brutal or lethal ways, transitioning from populist democracies into repressive autocracies. With such contrasting bright side and dark side it seems quite tricky to assess someone’s talent for leadership – unless you are willing to accept that they just lacked integrity. As Warren Buffett noted: “in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. If you hire somebody without integrity, you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”

With the world undergoing one of the worst global pandemics in history, it is only natural that our attention focuses on those tasked with guiding us through this unprecedented challenge: business, political, thought, religious, moral, and community leaders. As the world looks for answers that may mitigate the prevalent sense of helplessness and hopelessness, it is only normal that we point to our leaders for clarity, vision, and direction. This puts leaders under a much bigger level of scrutiny than they usually encounter. Wherever they are, whoever they are, and whatever they do – we are relying on them more than in good times. And we ask and expect them to rise to the challenge and accept the responsibility. The future looks more uncertain than ever, and change is happening on a daily basis, so this is their job. Nobody needs a leader when the main objective is to keep things as they are. If you cannot drive change or adapt to change or help your people to leverage change or adjust to change in the best possible way, can we call you a leader?

Undoubtedly, the pressure is high. We often speak about the importance of coping with pressure, including in HR circles. After all, we have spent a great deal of time during the past two decades highlighting the critical value of resilience, EQ, grit, and self-control. Seems we were focusing on the right traits, even if we never imagined the importance they would get, not even in the most pessimistic of scenarios. But the good news is that we are going to see environmental pressures to reinforce a more sustainable model of leadership. One that truly requires leaders to step up, be less self-focused, and harness the wellbeing of their groups, followers, and subordinates. Indeed, few things will expose the fragility of strong egos like the current pandemic. As Yuval Harari recently noted, nobody wants to follow a person who says “me first,” especially in stressful times. This does not mean that our leadership models are changing. In fact, the current Covid crisis will simply accelerate the retirement of outdated leadership profiles, made of attributes that were clearly seductive during more primitive times – aggression, polarization, bravado, overconfidence, narcissism, and reckless risk-taking – but counterproductive when leadership is actually needed.

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