In a world ruled by technology, it’s easy to think that the only valuable skills in the workforce are technical ones. But while hard skills like computer software knowledge and data analysis are important, employers are increasingly searching for people with skills that help them relate with others in a professional environment. In other words, employers are seeking candidates with soft skills.
Soft skills are gaining importance in all industries and positions, but they may be the most important for leaders. Here we’ll break down what constitutes a soft skill and what role they play in leadership.
What Are Soft Skills?
The term “soft skills” was coined by the U.S. Military more than fifty years ago to describe characteristics that help workers form strong connections. Unlike hard skills — such as proficiency in Adobe Creative Cloud, Java Script, or a foreign language — soft skills inform our personality traits, specifically when it comes to how we behave in interpersonal exchanges.
Long-time talent expert Gallup suggests thinking of soft skills as part of our natural behavior. For example, we may have a natural tendency to communicate effectively, think critically, or form meaningful relationships. This, however, does not mean soft skills cannot be developed. For each soft skill, there are sure to be well-researched skill-building courses from credible sources like LinkedIn Learning or online business universities.
Essential Soft Skills for Leaders at Any Level
It’s safe to say that no soft skills will work against you, but some are especially useful in particular positions and industries. For example, the most important soft skills for an IT professional (i.e. critical thinking or written communication) may differ from those for a customer service worker (i.e. active listening or a positive attitude) — though there may be overlaps too (i.e. problem-solving or patience).
What about leaders? Surely, leadership positions may differ based on industry or leadership level. But there are several soft skills that will help all leaders form strong connections and empower their teams.
Here are the five most important soft skills for all leaders:
This one may feel a bit obvious, but there are many facets of great communication skills to consider — one of which is active listening. While leaders must offer instruction and feedback, they also need to regularly check in with their reports and demonstrate an authentic desire to hear them. When employees feel heard by those senior to them, they feel more confident sharing how they feel about certain projects as well as contributing innovative ideas that take their organization to the next level.
Another important facet of communication is setting clear expectations. According to the Expert Panel at Forbes, “If leaders want employees to maximize productivity, get projects completed on time and accurately, and help the business thrive, they must ensure that every team member understands exactly what is expected of them.” Setting clear expectations requires more than a one-time email or document listing an employee’s role requirements; it requires follow-up — setting aside time during each meeting for questions, making yourself available outside of meetings, having individual check-ins with reports, etc.
Practicing strong communication is an active, ongoing process that is crucial for leaders who want their team members to be engaged and motivated.
Giving feedback is an essential soft skill for leaders because it promotes learning. When a leader gives consistent feedback to a direct report, it shows that they care about that individual’s growth. Upon receiving a new assignment, an employee may be faced with uncertainty. While setting clear expectations on the front end will minimize confusion, employees still need to know whether they are carrying through on tasks effectively. Otherwise, they may feel neglected and fearful that they’re doing something wrong.
It’s important to remember that feedback is not synonymous with criticism; it is meant to be a supportive act that motivates employees to learn.
In addition to giving feedback, a great leader will ask for it. A lot. When a manager consistently seeks feedback from their team, it becomes something far more impactful than a formal, one-way exchange. Instead, feedback becomes a part of the cultural fabric of an entire organization — one that builds trust and increases engagement.
Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is a useful skill for all individuals, in and out of the office, but it is especially critical for leaders. When managing a team, a great leader needs to be able to pick up on the emotions of their team, to “read the room.”
When introducing employees to a new task, a leader needs to be able to gauge their feelings. For example, when in a team meeting, an emotionally intelligent leader will read people’s body language or tone to decipher whether they feel confident to forge ahead. Maybe some team members are wearing a confused expression or begin fidgeting, signaling that the leader may need to explain the project differently.
A leader’s ability to be held accountable for their shortcomings is a powerful way to establish trust. Dan Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, says, “When leaders reveal their trip-ups and failures — rather than hiding them — they are seen as more approachable and less arrogant. Revealing these learning moments also signals that you are not threatened by feedback.”
In a job interview, a hiring manager may ask a candidate to share a time when they came up short. This is a great opportunity for the interviewee to demonstrate their ability to hold themself accountable. Per Cable’s statement, being honest about one’s failures shows humility–a critical component of a strong leader.
In an ever-changing, often tumultuous professional climate, leaders must be adaptable and agile rather than spending energy making meaning of events that are out of their control. They are better served by directing energy toward finding a better way forward.
Psychology Today cites numerous studies that support the notion that, when groups of people undergo a difficult change, those who are adaptable not only survive the change but thrive in response to it.
An adaptable leader is someone employees can trust because, when a crisis occurs, they will be better able to stay calm, focused, and work with their reports to find a new path ahead.
By paying attention to and cultivating soft skills, leaders can empower and guide teams forward toward the vision they have created. If you feel that your soft skills could use a refresh, an executive coach could serve as a helpful support in that process.